Officers sue for time spent changing

More than 1,000 San Francisco police officers have been asked to join a lawsuit that could cost The City millions of dollars in back pay for the time spent gearing up and dressing down for a shift.

The lawsuit claims police officers should receive on-duty pay for time spent putting on and taking off protective gear, such as bullet proof vests, equipment belts and radios.

The process, referred to as “donning and doffing,” is more than just putting on a police uniform, said Leslie Levy, an attorney representing the officers.

She claims the roughly 15 minutes before and after a shift are often spent reading reports, checking for damage on patrol cars, preparing computer equipment and checking protective gear.

The lawsuit, originally filed in February 2007 by a San Francisco police officer, has grown to almost 200 plaintiffs, according to Levy. Last week, she said, a federal judge conditionally approved a collective action notice, allowing any officer ranking as high as a lieutenant to opt in.

Each officer listed on the suit could be awarded between $50,000 to $150,000 for the three years since the “donning and doffing” standard was applied in a court case involving employees at a meat-packing plant. It could cost The City millions of dollars in a judgment or settlement.

The City Attorney’s Office is fighting the lawsuit in U.S. District Court on the grounds that there are only a handful of officers who have to prepare for their shift and that “it is standard practice to permit officers to depart their shifts early if all reports are completed and the next watch is out in the field,” according to court filings.

A recent ruling on a similar case involving 54 San Leandro police officers resulted in a summary judgment in favor of the officers. The ruling said that not only was putting on protective gear a vital part of the work day, but donning a police uniform was also worthy of pay.

A similar case involving Richmond police officers led to a slightly different ruling, however. U.S. District Court ruled that putting on and taking off the uniform — separate from protective gear — was not vital to the police officers’ duty.

The lawsuit comes as the City struggles to close a $338 million budget deficit, which Mayor Gavin Newsom has announced will lead to layoffs. The lawsuit also comes on the heels of a contract that boosts pay for officers by 25 percent in the next four years.

The San Francisco Police Officers Association has announced it will not support or oppose the lawsuit because rights under the Federal Labor Standards Act apply to individuals and not labor unions.

bbegin@examiner.com

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