Weeks after union officials sued the Massachusetts State Police, alleging troopers were being underpaid for overtime, they made a request: The court, they said, should order the agency to change how it calculates pay immediately, because failing to do so would threaten their members’ ability “to provide for themselves and their families.”
What the troopers initially left unsaid: The lowest-paid troopers in the union make, on average, nearly $94,000 a year.
A Suffolk Superior Court judge recently denied the request after the union provided payroll data, according to a court order made public this week. Of the 100 lowest-paid members the union identified, not one made less than $79,100 last year. Collectively, they averaged roughly $93,600 in total pay, according to court filings.
By comparison, the median household income in Massachusetts in 2019 was $81,215, census data show. In Boston, it was $71,115.
In dismissing the request by the State Police Association of Massachusetts for a preliminary injunction, Judge Jackie Cowin did not address the union’s underlying complaint, detailed in its March lawsuit, that the agency is intentionally miscalculating what qualifies as regular pay, costing rank-and-file members millions a year in overtime.
The union argued that state officials do not include various stipends the 1,900 troopers and sergeants it represents receive when they calculate their “regular” pay rate. That rate is used to determine overtime pay and retirement benefits.
The union, known as SPAM, is seeking at least $18 million in back pay and damages.
In a motion filed in mid-April, SPAM also requested that Cowin require the State Police to include the stipends in the regular pay rates going forward, before the lawsuit is settled. The union argued that its members face “irreparable harm” if state officials “continue to shirk their responsibilities to pay members according to the law.”
“It threatens the ability of [union] members to provide for themselves and their families,” the motion stated. The motion cited a 1996 case in which a father’s ability to support his family of five was deemed at risk because the state was garnishing his wages.
Troopers are “often, although not always, the primary breadwinners in their households,” Michael F. Cherven, the union’s president, wrote in an affidavit, adding that he believes he is being underpaid $1 for each overtime hour. “Thus, the failure to pay wages leads to additional harm on families that cannot be remedied after the fact.”
Cowin disagreed that any potential harm was so dire. She pointed to the lowest-paid troopers’ earnings, which the union provided at her request.
“These members earned an average total compensation of $93,564, negating a finding that a denial of injunctive relief will result in the type of economic harm the Courts were concerned with in the cases cited by the Association,” Cowin wrote in the April 29 order, filed publicly on Monday.
A union spokeswoman declined to comment Thursday, citing the active lawsuit.
Members of the State Police have had the highest average pay per employee of any state agency over the past decade, payroll data show. That includes 2020, when average pay was $120,851. It was higher in 2019, at $126,929.
Colonel Christopher Mason and the State Police — both defendants in the lawsuit — opposed the motion and have argued the agency is protected against claims it violated state or federal wage laws by sovereign immunity, which bars a private action in court against a state agency, with certain exceptions.
Mason and the State Police are represented by Attorney General Maura Healey’s office.
In January, SPAM filed a complaint alleging underpayment of overtime with Healey’s Fair Labor Division. Healey’s office responded two weeks later, saying the division would not conduct an investigation but authorizing the union to file a civil lawsuit.
Under state law, workers must file a complaint with the attorney general’s office over most potential wage violations before they sue.
“It is ironic that the Attorney General is representing the Defendants when it is the Attorney General that authorized this suit,” SPAM’s attorney wrote in the motion.
The State Police have consistently doled out among the highest amounts of overtime pay in state government, nearly $56.6 million in 2020 and nearly $58 million the year before.
The agency has also been roiled by widening allegations of overtime fraud for the past three years, most recently in December, when two retired supervisors were arrested on allegations they had overseen a years-long scheme to steal tens of thousands of dollars in overtime pay.
Governor Charlie Baker, whose public safety secretary oversees the State Police, and the agency instituted a raft of changes after the scandal exploded in 2018, including disbanding the troop at the center of the misconduct.
Executing reforms, however, has been a mixed bag. Quarterly audits of the department’s 50 highest-paid employees, an oversight measure ordered by Baker, were not effective in targeting potential overtime fraud because they focused on troopers who had earned the most money — including high-salaried employees and those who retired with big payouts for unused leave — instead of those who worked the most overtime hours, the state’s inspector general reported in March.