Op-in Editorial-Donning & Doffing

Ready for Action-Groundbreaking Change in Operations for Police
By Sgt. Fabian Cota
President, Mesa Police Association

When firemen are outside of their fire stations cleaning their trucks, preparing the hoses and equipment for the next fire, playing Frisbee in the park, do you ever wonder if they are on the clock and being paid?  Yes – and if the City chooses to make the firemen clock out then do their preparation and you will probably have the firemen suing. But we can’t pay officers to be prepared for a fire fight, riot, and the next call? They are trained to clean and prepare their weapons, just not compensated. That’s not right.

The Tribune’s article entitled “Mesa police union still backs ‘suit up’ pay” does not do the lawsuit justice.  The described “donning and doffing” is already a federal law from 2005 (IBP v. Alvarez & Tum v. Barber Foods).  The Mesa Police Association (MPA) tried to get clarification from the City of Mesa to the definition of “donning and doffing” in relation to police officers without going to court. We requested 15 minutes to be prepared for the day. The City of Mesa IGNORED us and wouldn’t even acknowledge court ruling supporting these claims. Kind of like if we ignore them they will just go away. The MPA filed a notice of claim. There still was no response. For over a year and a half, the city did not respond or acknowledge this issue. This meant that the city was now acting intentionally and increasing the damage amount. The MPA had no recourse but to file a suit on behalf of police officers to resolve these important pay issues and other similar issues.

There are over 35 items unique to the profession that require off-duty time to clean, maintain functionality, and don and doff. We are professionals and want to be ready for disaster and chaos. That’s our jobs-just being ready. Some officers there are required to be in uniform before driving to work. The city does not have “not on duty” signs for these cars. Only the city benefits from the presence of this officer “patrolling” to work. Are they on the clock? Is he supposed to tell people who flag him down that he can’t respond because he is not on duty?  There is an expectancy they act. Don’t you think someone robbed or raped would to sue the city if they saw a cop in uniform drive past them on his way to work? I don’t think anyone will buy that “he was off duty and on his way to work” argument as the city would pay out millions for that. Wouldn’t someone who sees a cop that is about to commit a crime not be deterred? That’s free service. They city doesn’t pay for that, the officer’s presence deters crime, but he is not paid. 

The last time there was this type of suit was over paid lunches, and it was discovered, as it is today, that many times cops don’t get a lunch or eat in their cars between calls. They also got lunch interrupted by calls for service that people have an expectation cops will respond when they call for a cop, and they don’t want to hear they are out to lunch. So the courts said you have to pay officers during lunch. The ironic thing is the city did not have a policy that required officers to skip lunch because of calls for service, but the courts ruled they had to pay for it because it was inherit in their job. They had to leave lunch so often and subject to call that the courts ruled that was paid time. Sounds like the same circumstances.  Interesting enough they made the same claims then as now that it was going to break the bank. It did not. That court ruling provided a universal practice of that cops have paid lunch nation wide. Much like is needed now with donning/doffing and preparation time. There was practically no impact on budget because the city just changed how it operated! Period. 

Agencies who have filed or are considering it are LAPD, Las Vegas, Boston, Florida, Dade County, Portland, Michigan, Maine, Salem, New York, Phoenix, AZ DPS, and Mesa. This includes the California Highway Patrol, who settled for 3% pay increase in lieu of the time and restoring take home motorcycles. Other agencies have settled similarly nationwide. U.S. District courts have ruled both for the employer and the employee. This begs for the matter to go to a higher court. There is the possibility the suit may proceed as a class action. If that happens, all officers may be automatically eligible.

The original case was for several minutes that included the employee donning & doffing and walking from the locker room, which was included and unanimously ruled as compensable under FLSA. If employers must pay for the time of walking to work, isn’t having a properly equipped police force with working and clean safety equipment more important than simply walking?  The time you test safety gear is not when you need it-that is for the safety of the officer and the public. 

An attack about this lawsuit is we are greedy. Not true, and our record shows that.  We have always looked out for the financial stability of the city, more so than the past council. That’s part of the reason our parent organization (Arizona Police Association) supported many of the new council, mayor, and propositions. We want to see it prosperous and are proud of the city that we serve.

Just think- a lawsuit could have been prevented with a phone call.  However, this is groundbreaking time for law enforcement, and the City of Mesa is now publicly profiled for giving definitions to donning and doffing.  But, it is disheartening that the City of Mesa will be on the map to the rest of the nation as the city that was unreasonable.

Donning and Doffing