Thursday, April 22, 2021

Firefighter terminated for taking double pay

Following lengthy and heated discussion, members of the Sumpter Township Board of Trustees last week terminated firefighter Colleen Armatis in connection with payroll irregularities.

Armatis, through her representative Jim Steffes of the Michigan Association of Firefighters, waived her right to a closed session and employee confidentiality during a hearing on the matter which was part of the board Zoom meeting March 13.

Armatis, who has been with the department about 5 years, is accused of taking double payments from the fire department for fire runs and while completing her firefighter one video training which occurred while she was also being paid for hourly work. According to the union contract which became effective in January 2020, firefighters are paid a base fee per run or response to a fire alert tone and then hourly.  If the individual is already being paid by the township for other work, the run fee is to be deducted from the hourly rate they are already being paid.  

Public Safety Director Eric Luke told the board members that he had received a complaint March 10 that there were irregularities in the fire department payroll preparation, which was part of Armatis' duties. In response to the allegation, Luke said he began an investigation of the fire department payroll records dating back to January of 2020. The complaint, he told the board, was that Armatis was being paid for fire runs and study time while also being paid hourly. 

Luke detailed his findings from each week and found that Armatis had incorrectly calculated the amounts 58 times in 74 payrolls he reviewed from January of 2020 until February of 2021. Armatis was paid $1,482 extra, $1,104 for double runs and another $380 while studying for her firefighter one rating. Luke said he met with Fire Chief Joe Januszyk regarding the matter and explained that an audit of all payroll and call records was necessary in light of the complaint. Luke said the result was an 18-foot long table in his office covered with records and documentation.

During a subsequent interview with Armatis, Luke said, she acknowledged the double-payments but said that it was an error and that Januszyk had not instructed her to change the procedure until August. Armatis said the double-payments were an error and that she forgot to implement the new procedure. She suggested that the error had not only occurred in her pay but in others in the department. She told Luke during the interview, he said, that it was a mistake and that she simply forgot the new procedure. She also claimed that being paid double for firefighter training was standard policy. 

The deductions for runs and study were properly made in August, Luke said, when Januszyk told Armatis to be careful to implement the new procedure. In following months, however, Luke said, the double pay continued at an erratic rate, primarily benefitting Armatis.

Armatis' claim was that she made the mistake for every firefighter, not only herself, proving, she claimed, that it was an error.

“If she did it for one, she did it for everyone,” Steffes said in Armatis' defense.

Luke said he did go back and review the payroll for every firefighter during the same period but could not base anything on the small number of other instances which occurred. With three other employee records reviewed, he said, the double payment occurred only four times. 

“I cannot say this works for her (Armatis) in her defense or against her,” he said. “There simply was not a large enough sample to work with.”

“In my opinion, this is always wrong. The fire chief went to Armatis and told her several times to make sure this was being done correctly,” Luke said.

“I don't feel I have any other choice as director of public safety but to bring to the board this termination request,” Luke said. “The responsibility is hers. I don't believe you ever get paid double for the same job,” he added, “especially when the person making the huge mistakes is also the one who benefits.”

Members of the board and township attorney Rob Young discussed the matter at great length, questioning Januszyk about the training he provided to Armatis, which Steffes claimed was inadequate and the specific dates of his instructions to her about the overlaps or double payments. Conflicting accounts of the time of Januszyk's instructions and training were also discussed.

Steffes reminded the board members that Armatis turned the payroll information over to the chief every month and no one ever checked or questioned it. He said the union believed the investigation is incomplete and that even the small sample of employee records demonstrates that “she did it wrong for others.”

“Was she an asset to the department?” he asked. “I'm befuddled. The union contract requires progressive discipline for all but the most serious errors.” He added that the responsibility for the double payments was with Januszyk, as the head of the department.

“This was never done with malice, it was an honest mistake,” he said.

Trustee Matt Oddy repeatedly asked Januzyk for a definite answer regarding the amount and time of training and if the fire chief felt he properly trained Armatis. “Well, I thought I did, but evidently, I didn't,” Januszyk responded at one point. During the discussion, he confirmed he had shown Armatis how to deduct the runs from the hourly pay three times. Steffes denied that claim on her behalf and said she had not been trained. 

Trustee Peggy Morgan wanted the entire board to view the videotaped interview of Armatis with Luke, claiming “there is more to the story.”

Luke asked if she was implying that he had not accurately and completely reported the content and result of that interview to the board members to which Morgan replied that she felt he had. She persisted, however, to insist that viewing the video interview was crucial for the board members and that the board members should each have copies of the 18-feet of documentation he had reviewed in the investigation. She said she and Treasurer James Clark had seen the tape at Luke's office and continued to argue that she and the board members needed all the documentation and records Luke had prepared.

“We have all the information and a recommendation from the director of public safety,” responded Trustee Tim Rush who then made a motion to vote on Armatis' termination.

Following more discussion including insistence by Morgan and Steffes that the board members examine Januzyk's pay records looking for the same errors in recordkeeping, Oddy again asked Januzyk if he felt he had trained Armatis. Young repeated Oddy's question to Januzyk who reluctantly responded, “I would say yes.”  He said he told Armatis three times that “we gotta watch the double-taps” referring to the double payments.

Morgan and Clark cast the lone dissenting votes and Armatis immediate termination was approved by a 5-2 vote.