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Nassau female 911 operators win $7M pay suit

Nassau County's female 911 operators and supervisors were

Nassau County's female 911 operators and supervisors were underpaid, a federal court has ruled in a class action. Credit: Howard Schnapp, 2010

A federal court has ordered Nassau County to pay $7 million next month to compensate female Nassau County 911 operators who argued in a lawsuit that they were paid significantly less than men doing similar work.

But the payment, due by Feb. 13, is tangled in the county's strained finances. The Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state watchdog in control of the county's finances, must approve borrowing to pay for all settlements. But the board has yet to vote on the funding, which was unanimously approved by the legislature in June.

Without NIFA approval, the county's options include paying the settlement out of operating funds, widening an estimated $310 million budget gap, or defaulting on the judgment and face 6-percent compounding interest payments. Plaintiffs also could seek a lien against the county.

"They are liable to make payment," said Janice Goodman, a Manhattan attorney who represented the 911 operators in the case. "This is a judgment."

County Attorney John Ciampoli conceded that Nassau "is on the hook" for the $7.8 million settlement, which includes $800,000 in attorneys fees and other costs. But he said taking the money out of the county's operating budget "is an invitation for chaos."

Nassau is encouraging NIFA to immediately approve the bonding for the settlement. "The county needs to explore its potential remedies here," Ciampoli said.

A NIFA attorney did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

The class-action lawsuit was filed in November 2005 on behalf of about 150 female 911 operators and supervisors, all members of the Civil Service Employees Association. The women claimed they were paid about $10,000 less per year than Nassau fire communications operators -- nearly all of them men -- in violation of the New York State Equal Pay Act.

A similar suit was settled years earlier in favor of female 911 operators in New York City.

"It was a long fight and I feel like I was made whole," said Helen Ebbert, 63, a Nassau 911 operator since 1989 and the case's primary plaintiff. "You need to stand up for yourself. Women were not getting paid for doing the same jobs as men."

Nassau put the female operators' salaries on par with fire communications operators in 2005. The lawsuit sought back pay and step increases from 1999 to the present.

The women accepted a final settlement agreement last month in which the county did not acknowledge wrongdoing.

The plaintiffs, about 80 percent of whom still work for the county, are expected to receive an average of between $40,000 and $60,000 apiece, depending on their salary and grade, said CSEA 911 Operators Unit President Gary Volpe. The six named plaintiffs will each get an additional $20,000.

The agreement, however, has had cascading consequences. Roughly 30 male 911 operators are now considering filing suit, contending that they also deserve back pay because the female operators got it.

"By virtue of the win for the females, the males are now being paid less than their female co-workers," Volpe said.

Ciampoli declined to discuss a possible second lawsuit, calling the matter "speculative."

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