One Los Angeles firefighter made $360,010 in overtime last year, and 18 employees of the department each earned more than $200,000 in overtime pay. In all, more than 90% of LAFD employees received overtime – an average of $27,737.
Excessive overtime is an ongoing challenge at many fire departments around the United States, and the situation can often attract the attention of auditors and budget-conscious city managers, who may be concerned, or even suspicious, about the additional costs. There may be questions such as whether overtime hours are being allocated fairly. There are often calls for more oversight and regulation. Transparency is critical when tax dollars are being spent, and those who allocate the funding have to face voters.
Working culture of long shifts
For firefighters, overtime pay can provide a welcome boost to their household finances and make firefighting jobs more attractive. Working long shifts (and overtime) is a part of the culture of firefighters. But at what cost to departments? Is overtime pay the best use of resources? Is overtime pay the best use of resources? Might other employment models be more cost-effective? Extremely high overtime payments to a handful of individuals at least suggest a need for more balance in how overtime is distributed.
Burgeoning overtime expenditures also may reflect other issues, such as inadequate staffing or recruitment challenges. For example, the Baltimore City Fire Department is paying overtime to fill nearly a third of its firefighter and medic shifts every day, according to The Baltimore Sun. The department is relying on volunteer “callbacks,” when a firefighter or medic who just finished a shift is asked to work another one.
Montgomery Fire/Rescue $2 million over budget
Last year, Montgomery, Ala., Fire/Rescue went $2 million over budget because of overtime pay needed in response to a multi-year worker shortage. In some cases, overtime is a temporary solution to an ongoing problem: recruitment and retention of firefighters.
Another element of overtime is a department’s “constant staffing” model, which requires a fire station to be staffed 24/7 for fires, medical calls or other emergencies. There may also be a need to cover for employees who are on leave for health reasons, military service or for disciplinary issues. There are vacations to consider. Leave requests may occur with little prior notice, and overtime may be the only practical means of covering for the absences.
Another element of overtime is a department’s “constant staffing” model, which requires a fire station to be staffed 24/7 for fires, medical calls or other emergencies
Avoids hiring additional staff
Some say paying additional overtime saves money in the long run by avoiding having to hire additional staff and pay their benefits. However, in some cases, reduced benefit expenditures – such as pension cutbacks – are changing the calculus. In the case of wildfires federal or state disaster funding may absorb the costsGiven the shifting variables, it may be less expensive in some cases to hire additional employees than to swallow the overtime costs. However, in a competitive employment environment, what are the chances that a new recruit may be lured away by another department despite a huge investment in training?
In some cases, the costs of overtime may be reimbursed to local jurisdictions. In the case of wildfires, for example, federal or state disaster funding may absorb the costs. For special events, city employee overtime may be reimbursed by an event organizer or venue.
Shifts not comparable to business world
There is also an argument that how firefighters are scheduled requires that issues of overtime be examined through a different lens. A firefighter might work a 24-hour shift, three times as long as a typical eight-hour workday. A firefighter might work a 24-hour shift, three times as long as a typical eight-hour workdayTherefore, overtime issues are not equivalent, or comparable, to the business world. Assuming that’s true, it suggests a need for more education and explanation to city managers and the general public about the specific differences and how they impact the need and/or desirability of overtime.
Large amounts of overtime also raise concerns about fatigue and morale. For example, a firefighter is likely less effective after working multiple long shifts. Given the life-and-death nature of firefighting and emergency medical care, employees should always be at their best. Overly tired firefighters could possibly put additional lives at risk.