K9 Handlers

Charleston County Sheriff's Office K-9 Deputy Chris Quinn plays with his dog Hugo on Monday, July 2, 2018. Brad Nettles/Staff

After a day's work is done, K-9 officers spend countless hours caring for the dogs who typically live with them. 

When all the time spent looking after their dogs is accounted for, plus the time spent performing regular on-the-clock duties, the hours rack up quickly.

But policies on how they get paid for animal care vary from agency to agency in South Carolina, where several have faced pricey consequences for practices that run afoul of federal labor laws. Along with the hodgepodge of practices, though, some agencies have no written rules at all, which observers say runs the risk of federal sanctions and costly lawsuits.

Some Palmetto State law enforcement agencies, including the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office, have faced suits prompting payouts that include damages equal to double the back pay owed to their officers. And last month, federal officials told the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office to compensate six deputies $48,229 worth of back pay after an investigation found violations of overtime and record-keeping requirements for the time spent caring for their animals.

"This case serves as a reminder for local government to review their pay practices to ensure they are paying employees in compliance with (the law)," Jamie Benefiel, who oversees the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division district in Columbia, said in a statement.

Federal law designed to ensure workers are paid what they're owed appears straightforward: Employees, regardless of the industry, must be compensated at least minimum wage for all hours worked, including when they are performing their jobs during normal off time.

The Fair Labor Standards Act requires workers to be paid at least 1½ times the regular hourly rate after surpassing a 40-hour week. However, an exception applies to law enforcement that affords more flexibility for employers, requiring overtime pay after 86 hours during a two-week period.

In light of the Labor Department investigation — after Darlington County paid the wages — the agency revised its policy so K-9 deputies are compensated for every hour spent caring for their dogs.

This isn’t the first time a South Carolina law enforcement agency has come under fire for inadequate record-keeping and payment practices related to K-9 units during off hours.

“We commonly find issues related to failure to record all hours worked and (failure to) compensate employees for all hours worked,” said Jason Coker, a wage and hour investigator with the Labor Department. “It’s a common problem across the board. It’s not just specific to one industry.”

Darlington County sheriff's Lt. Robby Kilgo said the county had adopted a new policy in July 2017, which saw deputies earning a flat rate of 5 percent per year over their base salary to cover K-9 kennel care and training. Regardless of the hours deputies invested in caring for their animals, they received the same rate, he said.

What it takes

Caring for law enforcement dogs extends beyond working with the animals in the field, considering most of the animals live at home with their handlers, said Charleston County Sheriff's Office Lt. Jay Zealberg, who oversees the K-9 division.

Handlers are responsible for the dogs' daily hygiene, food, exercise, water and cleanup. 

"When they go home, (the dogs) need to be constantly hydrated, they need to be washed very consistently, their nails need to be clipped, their hair cleansed," Zealberg said. "Some guys brush their dog's teeth. ... There's a constant high level of care these dogs receive."

The deputies with K-9 partners are also responsible for ensuring the animals receive veterinary checkups each month and participate in weekly training sessions.

"It's really a position that comes with a lot of extra responsibility," Zealberg said. "When you add a living, breathing creature into the work, you can imagine how much more responsibility comes with an assignment like that."

And all the added responsibility comes with an investment of time and money.

K9 Handlers

Charleston County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Jay Christmas plays with his police dog Hector on Monday, July 2, 2018. Christmas is the lead K-9 trainer for the department. Brad Nettles/Staff

How it's done

In Charleston County, K-9 deputies are additionally compensated for 3½ hours worth of work each week, although deputies can request more if needed, sheriff's spokesman Capt. Roger Antonio said.

Horry County has a similar policy, though deputies earn two-thirds of their regular hourly rate, county spokeswoman Kelly Moore said.

In Dorchester County, deputies receive four hours of pay weekly to care for their animal counterparts in addition to a monthly stipend, a spokeswoman said.

At the Richland County Sheriff's Office, K-9 deputies earn seven extra hours of pay a week as well as a 5 percent salary bump when they take on a dog partner. But the practice isn't spelled out in a written policy.

"That’s just something we’ve always done," Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said. "It's an unwritten policy, but it's an understanding when they join the K-9 (squad)."

The Berkeley County Sheriff's Office compensates K-9 deputies with an additional 45 minutes worth of pay per work day, Chief Deputy Mike Cochran said. That equates to about $3,749 annually for dog care, he added. 

In May 2013, a handful of Berkeley County deputies sued the department, alleging that the agency knowingly did not pay them for time spent “feeding, watering, grooming, bathing, exercising, cleaning up after, training and bonding” with their dogs.

"I would be suspect of agencies that don't have a written policy in place with regard to overtime," said Marybeth Mullaney, a Mount Pleasant attorney who represented the deputies in the lawsuit. "I'm also suspect when agencies don't keep track of the actual hours their employees work."

At one point in 2001, the department suspended all compensation for off-duty dog care. Not until 2012 were K-9 officers offered compensation. Beginning that October, officers started receiving pay equal to 30 minutes per day for care and maintenance, according to the suit.

The law firm representing the deputies in their 2013 lawsuit told The Post and Courier at the time that “this is a problem all over."

Ultimately, each of the deputies were awarded between about $3,000 and $52,000, according to the settlement. The amounts were double the back pay that had been alleged.

Since then, the agency has been incorporating K-9 officer compensation as a separate line item in the county budget. The practice has made it easier to track expenses for K-9 care, Cochran said.

"If we're properly compensating them and ... adequately documenting it, then we avoid any problems," Cochran said. "It's just one of those things that law enforcement leaders need to take a look at and make sure it's done right. Because it'll hurt you if it's not."

Reach Michael Majchrowicz at 843-607-1052. Follow him on Twitter @mjmajchrowicz.

Michael Majchrowicz is a reporter covering crime and public safety. He previously wrote about courts for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts. A Hoosier native, he graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.