Thursday January 10, 2013

KEITH WHITCOMB JR.

Staff Writer

POWNAL -- Amidst objections by a town auditor, the Select Board voted last week to accept an attorney specializing in labor law's opinion that certain town employees met overtime payroll exemptions.

The exemptions allow them to be paid overtime despite being on salary.

At the board meeting on Jan. 3, Auditor Ray Shields presented the board with a letter he had written concerning a meeting held on Dec. 27 between himself, the board, and Brattleboro attorney Timothy Copeland whom the board hired to get his legal opinion on matters Shields has raised concerning how two town employees are paid.

According to what was said by Shields and board members, Copeland participated in the meeting via telephone owing to hazardous weather conditions.

"I am convinced more than ever that certain pay issues still exist in the information I bought forward to the board and Mr. Copeland's opinion on these two individuals is just at the starting line. Mr. Copeland's opinion I feel was made without all the facts at hand to support his opinion."

At past meetings Shields claims he has found payroll errors between 2009 and 2012. He has requested access to employee payroll records and has continually butted heads with the board, mostly its Chairman, Stephen Kauppi, over who and what order he shares his information. Shields has said he is acting within his rights as an auditor and in some cases, as a private citizen. The board has said he has been acting inappropriately by not consulting with other auditors and taking his findings to state level officials before going to the board.

Shields did not refer to the employees by name in his letter but through the discussion at the Jan. 3 meeting it was made known by the board he was discussing the road foreman, Casey Mattison, and Linda Sciarappa, the board's administrative assistant, referred to Employee A and Employee B respectively.

In his letter referring to Sciarappa, Shields wrote "Hired full time in the early 2000's this employee was given added responsibilities as the job qualifications progressed. He/she was given an additional 5 hours per week, 1 hour daily, at his/her straight time rate, for responsibilities and work related duties. These responsibilities ended several years ago, but the town continued to pay Employee B for these hours. At this auditor's recommendation to the board, in July of 2012 these hours/pay were stopped."

Shields went on to write "Mr. Copeland's opinion to this board that this employee was not covered by FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) overtime regulations, but exempt. Much of this determination relates to his/her job qualifications, which is lengthy and some of which is in dispute."

Shields said at the meeting that Sciarappa's job description does not describe an administrative one which would exempt it from the FLSA overtime rules. In his letter, Shields said the overtime issue and payroll mistakes are separate but linked, and that the overtime issue would have to be settled first.

Board member Nelson Brownell read off the lengthy job description and said if Sciarappa is doing what it describes, she is exempt according to Copeland and that many of her duties qualify as administrative.

The board passed a motion to accept Copeland's findings and acknowledge that Sciarappa was meeting the job description and was thus exempt. Board member Ronald Bisson abstained from the vote, saying Copeland had asked for clarification on one point and as far as Bisson knows didn't get it. He said he was also not comfortable with Copeland not having been at the meeting in person. Brownell also abstained saying he was not at the meeting and wrote the job description in question.

Shields' issue with Mattison's pay was that when he was hired in the late 1990s, after completing a probationary period he was given an additional one hour of pay per day at his hourly rate because he was a supervisor.

According to Shields, the additional pay for Mattison began at $47.50 per week and as of 2011 had increased to $83.35, rising along with his base pay. Shields wrote this is not an unusual practice but said it had not been offered to people previously in the position. Shields' issue with it is that it does not count as "on call time" which is required for the FLSA overtime exemption.

The board also voted to send the minutes of the Jan. 3 meeting to Copeland and ask him to send his written opinion back. Shields' letter was attached to the minutes despite initial objections to do so by Kauppi. In any case the minutes will not be sent until they are approved at the board's next meeting.