A former Charlotte Fire Department captain says she feels “betrayed” after her pension was reduced because she spent two weeks out of a 25-year career on so-called light-duty.
Shortly before her retirement in 2013, June Stilwell, a former captain, had a pain in her shoulder. She decided to spend her final two weeks before retirement behind a desk.
But when the Charlotte Firefighters Retirement System’s board of trustees calculated Stilwell’s retirement benefits, it decided that those two weeks behind a desk were critical in determining her pension.
Her retirement was based on a 40-hour work week that’s associated with light duty – not the 52-hour regular week that firefighters typically have. Stilwell worked almost her entire career on a 52-hour workweek.
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The decision has cost her $300 a year, for the rest of her life.
“It has devastated me,” said Stilwell, who is 62. “I put my life on the line for 25 years.”
Stilwell said she isn’t aware of another firefighter who has been shortchanged for spending two weeks behind a desk.
“It’s just wrong, it’s disappointing,” she said. “They told me they would do right by me, and then they change it.”
Stilwell said she fought hundreds of fires over her career.
“Some were just room and contents fires, some were in buildings where it was pitch black,” she said. “You had to find the fire, you couldn’t see anything.”
Stilwell’s pension is $58,209. Her pension will be paid from her contributions and city funds.
Fire Chief Jon Hannan sent a letter on Stilwell’s behalf in September to the chair of the Charlotte Firefighters Retirement System, lobbying the group to review her case.
In his letter, Hannan said Stilwell was a fire captain for her entire career, but, due to a medical reason, she was removed from her truck.
“I must point out that this happens with great regularity and at any given time there are as many as 20 firefighters on light-duty for medical reasons,” he wrote.
Hannan’s letter noted that the retirement board has since made a change that would have allowed Stilwell to retire under her 52-week schedule.
But Stilwell said the board didn’t make that retroactive for her.
The firefighters retirement system was established by the state shortly after World War II to manage pension and disability benefits for Charlotte firefighters. The board is a mix of city staff and appointed citizens.
The city of Charlotte is not allowed to discuss personnel issues of a specific employee unless that employee gives them permission to do so.
Stilwell told the city that it could discuss her case with the media.
The city has declined to comment. Cheryl Brown, the city’s human resources director, declined to comment.
The chair of the retirement board, Vanessa Heffron, couldn’t be reached for comment.
The city and firefighters have feuded over retirement payouts before.
Brian Kurzel, a retired battalion chief, sued the city last year over how it calculated his payout when he retired. At least 30 other firefighters are seeking to join the lawsuit.
Among his complaints: That when he retired, he was shortchanged roughly $6,700 from a lump sum payment.
Travis Payne, Kurzel’s attorney, said there is a connection between the Stilwell and Kurzel cases.
“It is a widespread problem of the city, or the fire department,” Payne said. “It seems to me there is a conscious attempt on the part of city and fire department officials to limit the amounts that the city has to pay out both in retirement and accrued leave.”