Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer
Last fall, just a few months before leaving the Macon County Sheriff’s Office, former K9 officer Craig Stahl notified Sheriff Robert Holland that he would be filing a Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) claim against the department and the county for pay he believed he accrued while serving the department as a K9 officer.
Rather than take the case to court, Macon County settled the claim with Stahl Tuesday night by agreeing to pay a total of $50,733 – $41,962.68 of which is back pay and the remainder is the mandated FICA, Medicare, 401K and retirement that would have been paid during the time in question.
Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the settlement Tuesday night. Commissioner Paul Higdon was the lone nay vote, and while he didn’t qualify his vote with a reason for voting against the measure and did not return questions for comment as of press time, Higdon did say, “I believe that employees should absolutely be paid for the work they do and should be compensated for what they earn,” he said before voting against the settlement.
Macon County attorney Chester Jones and the Macon County Board of Commissioners each commended Sheriff Robert Holland for how professionally and swiftly he handled the claim when it was brought to his attention.
Stahl’s claim stems from a provision of the FLSA that states K9 officers should be paid for caring for the dog when they are not on regular duty. K9 handlers take the dog home with them, house them and care for them as if they would any pet in their home. FLSA dictates that K9 handlers should be financially compensated for feeding, walking, training, and caring for the animal on days the officer isn’t working regular hours. Prior to filing the FLSA claim, Stahl had not previously approached Sheriff Holland regarding the issue, and the first time the Sheriff was notified about the issue was after a claim had been made. Sheriff Holland immediately contacted County Manager Derek Roland and County Attorney Chester Jones to make them aware. Sheriff Holland also immediately begin revising the department’s K9 policy to reflect the requirements of the FLSA to ensure that the issue is corrected and officers are compensated fairly as it relates to the law.
Jones informed commissioners that the department’s K9 policy predates Sheriff Holland becoming sheriff, and in fact was in place when Sheriff Holland himself was a K9 officer. At no point prior to the FLSA claim being filed had any K9 officer for the Macon County Sheriff’s Office been paid to care for their pet while not on duty and the department wasn’t made aware of the issue until Stahl filed the claim, just prior to leaving the MCSO and being hired on with the Franklin Police Department.
Stahl served as a K9 handler with the Macon County Sheriff’s Office for nearly 10 years. His K9, Conan, was certified in narcotics work in the fall of 2008 and then made “full patrol” in the fall of 2012. Conan was sworn in on Sept. 9, 2013, with an official badge and title of “officer,” which is recognized by the state of N.C. Conan was diagnosed with cancer last spring and his official end of watch was April 4, 2017. In the months after Conan’s passing, Stahl did add a new pet to his family on his own, outside of the bloodline used for the department, so that dog was not added to the MCSO’s K9 unit. The FLSA claim was filed about six months after Conan passed away.
The issue of K9 handlers being compensated for pay while not on duty isn’t something specific to Macon County. The United States Department of Labor (DOL) mandates the handler compensation of “at-home care” of police dogs under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). An agency’s failure to compensate a handler has resulted in litigation where the agency was found liable for 2-3 years of back pay for each canine handler. The FLSA handler compensation issue started in 1985 when the case of Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority, stated that the FLSA was applicable to the public sector government. The DOL has consistently held that time spent in the at-home care of police dogs is compensable time and that, to the extent that these hours exceed 40 in one week, time and one-half compensation must be paid.
The Department of Labor (DOL) issued a “Letter Ruling” dated Aug. 11, 1993. This ruling stated:
1) Bathing, brushing, exercising, feeding, grooming, cleaning of the dog’s kennel or transport vehicle, administering drugs or medicine for illness and/or transporting the dog to and from an animal hospital or veterinarian and training the dog at home are all compensable activities.
2) All these activities apply to workdays as well as days off duty or during vacation periods.
County Manager Derek Roland informed commissioners Tuesday night that the county pursued a settlement option after consulting with an expert personnel attorney. Jones explained that if the case was taken to court and litigation was to occur and the courts ruled in favor of Stahl, the FLSA would dictate that the county has to pay double whatever the estimated compensated amount was. So if it was found that Stahl was owed $10,000, the FLSA dictates the county pay Stahl $20,000. The county would also be responsible for paying Stahl’s lawyer fees, which was estimated to start at around $30,000. Rather than take the case to court, both parties were able to reach an amicable settlement. Stahl will be responsible for paying all the taxes on the settlement and be responsible for paying for his own lawyer fees.