WASILLA -- The Matanuska-Susitna Borough will pay more than $160,000 to nine emergency responders who say they didn't get paid state retirement benefits due them.
The out-of-court settlement resolves a 2014 lawsuit filed by a dozen responders who claimed they deserved Public Employees' Retirement System payments for years of responding to fires and medical calls at full-time or nearly full-time levels.
The suit highlights the reliance of Alaska's fastest growing region on a largely paid on-call rather than full-time emergency response force. Responders involved say it also shows that the borough failed to recognize them as true employees despite the importance of their jobs and the hours they put in.
The settlement was signed earlier this month, according to Tom Daniel, a partner at the law firm that represented the borough, Anchorage-based Perkins Coie. Along with payments to responders based on their time with the borough and hours worked, the borough also agreed to pay legal fees totaling a little more than $89,000, Daniel said.
As is standard in such settlements, the borough made no admission of liability, said Jon Wiederholt, an attorney for the responders with the Anchorage firm Aglietti, Offret & Woofter.
"We don't believe the Borough was in the wrong, but the settlement avoids the uncertainty of a trial and avoids negative impacts to Borough operations," Borough Manager John Moosey said in a statement issued Monday. He couldn't be reached for comment Monday afternoon.
The number of emergency calls for help is skyrocketing in Mat-Su, a sprawling Ireland-sized borough that still relies on paid on-call rather than full-time emergency responders, though the number of full-timers is growing.
The lead plaintiff in the PERS suit was Andrea Richey, a former medic and officer at Palmer and Wasilla-based Central Mat-Su fire departments.
Richey said in a phone interview Monday that she worked more than full time some years from 2001 to last year but never got pension benefits. She worked a regular shift schedule every week and had to ask for time off, just like any regular employee, but PERS never came up.
"I knew I was working more hours and that I wasn't being compensated appropriately. I wasn't even making Social Security income," Richey said from her job as a medical assistant at Mat-Su Community Pediatrics in Wasilla.
Responders were also used to virtually volunteer conditions -- Richey said she'd make $15 a call in 2001 -- and let the borough get away with failing to keep up with growth and proper compensation. But the borough took advantage of responders and failed to make the proper changes to account for a growing population, she said.
"We all responded to serve our communities. The bottom line is responders will make those trucks go in and out of those doors when 911 rings," she said. "It's the borough's fault in that it was very short-sighted."
Along with a small but growing number of full-time responders, the borough makes use of about 430 paid on-call firefighters, EMTS and rescue technicians. Fewer than half of that number respond on a regular basis, officials say.
Attorneys involved in the lawsuit originally estimated as many as 1,200 employees could qualify for inclusion in the lawsuit, many of them emergency responders but also librarians and lifeguards.
It's unclear what the success of the nine responders involved in the lawsuit means for others eligible for PERS payments before the borough changed its agreement with the state in 2014 to make sure only permanent, full-time employees are eligible for state retirement benefits.
"I don't think anybody knows the answer to that question," Daniel said.
Wiederholt, however, said he believes responders and other employees who worked enough hours or had a regular schedule could also have a case.
The borough started enforcing an hours cap at the start of 2014: No paid on-call responder can work more than 29.9 hours a week. Officials have said the cap reflected PERS but also anticipated costs from the Affordable Care Act.
The cap has made for staffing challenges and also made it harder to recruit new responders, borough emergency services director Bill Gamble said in a presentation earlier this fall.
The PERS problem first came to light in 2011. A critical state audit found the borough wrongly classified emergency responders as "temporary" employees to exclude emergency responders and other employees from PERS benefits.
The 2011 audit, which Richey said wasn't disclosed by the borough for nearly a year, triggered a wave of questions among the responder corps and led to a series of sometimes heated meetings with borough managers.
"I think the borough was simply willing to make do with what they had," she said. "We were willing to do it. So it was a problem they didn't have to deal with yet."