Updated at 4:39 p.m.
A class action in Washington federal court accuses private military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan of underpaying and mistreating firefighters.
Wackenhut Services International (now called G4S), KBR Inc. and Halliburton are accused of underpaying firefighters by between $20,000 and as much as $100,000. The firefighters are seeking more than $100 million in combined back-pay and damages, including punitives. The lawsuit (PDF) was filed on Dec. 6 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The class covers firefighters working in Iraq or Afghanistan under contracts with Wackenhut from 2005 until the present; Wackenhut subcontracted the work from KBR, whose parent company at the time was Halliburton. The complaint estimates that at least 2,000 people are covered by the lawsuit.
According to the complaint, the firefighters signed contracts with the understanding that they would be entitled to wages that included overtime, on-call and other payments for going beyond their normal duties.
Once they were on the ground, they allege, they were forced to work 24-hour shifts and take on additional duties without commensurate pay. If firefighters complained, according to the complaint, they were told, “You have two choices, aisle or window,” or, “Chicken or beef.” The references constituted threats that they would be fired and sent home if they continued to complain.
“This case is about very big government contractors making billions off of the back of firefighters and other people who work over there in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said co-lead plaintiffs’ counsel Scott Bloch, a Washington solo practitioner. “They’re going to make billions if they pay for work performed, but somehow that’s not enough for them.”
Washington solo practitioner Michael Trevelline is also representing the firefighters.
Representatives of Wackenhut and Halliburton did not immediately return a request for comment. A KBR spokeswoman, in a written statement, said, “We recently learned of this lawsuit filing. We have not had a chance to review the pleadings made in this lawsuit. As such, we are not prepared to comment at this time.”
Some firefighters previously pursued damages through arbitration and received a settlement of $1,500 per person, an amount that the plaintiffs in this case say was too low. The class covers workers who opted-out of the settlement, never received opt-out forms, “or who were confused or did not have sufficient time to opt out or understand opting out was a real option.”