Some of the allegations made in a lawsuit recently filed against the Town of Florence by the local firefighter’s union, and the headline of the story reporting the action in the March 5, 2015 issue of the Florence Reminder Blade, are a gross misrepresentation of the actual facts.
“The Town generally doesn’t respond to specific inquiries when litigation is filed,” explained Mayor Tom Rankin. “However, the facts provided by the attorneys representing the local firefighter’s union that appeared in their lawsuit and in the recent article in the Florence newspaper were a misrepresentation of the facts in such a magnitude that the Town feels it has no choice but to respond and set the record straight.”
The lawsuit alleges the Town of Florence ignored “governmental direction for years” about Social Security coverage for firefighters, and cites two letters from 1985 and 1987. The attorney representing the firefighter’s union is quoted as saying “the wrongful withdrawals go back to at least 1985”. In reality, the Town of Florence did not employ full-time firefighters until 1997.
The Town of Florence did withhold Social Security contributions for firefighters, as well as contribute the employer portion to the Social Security Administration, as part of the payroll process. At the time, the Town believed it was acting correctly, based on opinions provided by attorneys and other professionals in a position to provide advice on these types of matters.
“The question of whether firefighters were exempt from Social Security was highly complex and technical in nature, and involved the interpretation of several documents going back to the early 1950’s. In fact, the experts in this area, the Social Security Administration, took approximately one year to untangle the matter and determine that the Florence firefighters were not covered by the Social Security system,” Town Human Resource Director Scott Barber explained.
“When the Town received a final determination from the Social Security Administration in November, 2013, the Town acted promptly and diligently to explore all remedies. The Town generously assisted the firefighters in obtaining the maximum refunds available under the law, including interest, even though it was not required to do so,” Mr. Barber further explained.
The firefighter’s union is now suing the Town for some of the same relief they have already received from the Federal government. They are also suing for the dollars paid by the Town of Florence to the Social Security Administration that was never intended to be paid directly to the firefighters.
The union’s attorney’s statement that the Town’s Social Security contributions were made for the benefit of the firefighters demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the law. Under the Social Security system, there is no linkage between an employer’s contribution and an employee’s benefits. An employer’s portion of the contributions is considered a general tax to raise revenue for the Federal government, and is not earmarked for the benefit of any particular individual. In fact, if an employer fails to make its required Social Security contributions, it has no impact whatsoever on an employee’s eligibility for benefits. An employee’s eligibility for benefits is based on the amount of his/her reportable earnings, and not the contributions of the employer.
Town Manager Charles Montoya said the Town of Florence has done no intentional wrong in the firefighters Social Security issue. “The allegation that the firefighters will never receive Social Security benefits because of something the Town of Florence did or did not do is disingenuous. It appears to be the union’s intent to try this lawsuit in the court of public opinion and thereby try to coerce the Town into paying out at least a quarter of a million dollars that the Town does not owe. We’re confident that this claim will either be dismissed outright or will be ultimately adjudicated in favor of the Town and its taxpayers,” Montoya added.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Town is the “Association of Florence Fire Fighters, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4512, Its Members and ABC Plaintiffs 1-100”. It should be noted that the Town of Florence does not either formally or informally recognize any union or employee association. While some Arizona municipalities do engage in a “meet-and-confer” process with employee unions or associations and negotiate agreements, the Town of Florence does not.