First responders paid more than $2 million in overtime for 2015 and 2016

By Conrad Swanson
Lawrence Journal World - March 27, 2017

 

All told, Lawrence and Douglas County first responders raked in more than $2 million in overtime payments for 2015.

Some workers made more than $30,000 in overtime payments alone. And for 2016, the numbers only increased: the highest overtime payment for a single employee breached $45,000.

Department heads say the overtime payments are partially due to staffing shortages and other complications natural to their line of work. It appears as if the numbers can be expected to increase.

Examined as a percentage of total salary costs, the biggest consumer of overtime is Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical, which spent 6.8 percent of the department's salary cost on overtime in 2015. The total increased to 7.6 percent in 2016. These percentages amount to $721,557 and $895,341, respectively.

Second place falls to the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, which spent approximately 6.3 percent, or $570,636, of its 2015 salary budget on overtime. As of Friday afternoon, the same figures were unavailable for the office's 2016 budget and Sgt. Kristen Dymacek said because of an extremely busy schedule she could not immediately answer questions about the data.

Third place in the percentage category, but first place for the sum total, sits the Lawrence Police Department, which spent approximately 6 percent, or $771,511, on overtime costs for 2015. For 2016, that figure totaled $913,894, city salary data shows.

Both Fire Chief Mark Bradford and Police Chief Tarik Khatib agree staffing shortages have driven their overtime costs upward.

Since 2006, Bradford said the number of employees in his department has actually decreased, while the county has only grown.

As far as the police department is concerned, its nearly $1 million overtime cost for 2016 is significant when put in the context of an overall lower salary budget for the same year, Khatib wrote in an email.

"So we are seeing less salary and more overtime," he said. "Probably as a result of losing experienced officers (23 officers left/and or retired in 2016) and the replacements costing less. Staffing needs certainly pressured the overtime numbers."

Bradford said another significant factor uniquely impacting the fire department is the way it handles scheduling. Firefighters work in 24-hour shifts over 28-day work cycles, and in any given shift there are 42 people on duty, he said. With their current level of staffing, each shift can only allow for four people to call in sick, take leave or miss work for any other reason before employees must be called in and paid overtime, he said.

"It's tight," Bradford said.

Because of the 24-hour shifts and fair labor laws, fire department employees working their normal schedules are often eligible for 12 hours in overtime every work cycle.

This overtime, of course, can fluctuate, depending on whether the employees take vacation time or sick leave, Bradford said.

On top of the staffing shortage, Bradford said employees are already spread thin with their current responsibilities, which include inspection, investigation, educational and preventative work.

Addressing how this impacts their firefighting abilities in a given day, Bradford said, "I'd like to say we could do two interior fire attacks at once, but we cannot."

Though a staffing shortage is impacting overtime costs, Khatib said he believes the 6 percent rate is what he would consider within the "normal" range. He referred to an annual report comparing police departments across the country for context.

"The average ... was 4.1 (percent). So we're in the ballpark as compared to what other departments are looking at," he said.

Another significant factor is the nature of the work, Bradford and Khatib agreed.

The fire department can't control or predict when a home will go up in flames, just like the police department can't control or predict when a bank will be robbed.

All one can do is try to staff enough people at any given time to handle whatever might come up, Bradford said.

Khatib echoed his statements.

"In law enforcement, a lot of the work environment is unpredictable, so at some level, overtime will be a little at the mercy as to what crimes, events, and situations occur on a particular day," he said. "Our challenge is to attempt to reasonably budget for that unpredictability."

Alongside working extra hours for an ongoing house fire or criminal investigation, first responders will often earn overtime for University of Kansas events.

For events at KU, such as home basketball games that require ambulances to be available, the university will reimburse the city for that overtime, Bradford said. With that in mind, the city's net overtime costs will actually be lower. He estimated this accounted for about $100,000 in 2015.

Addressing why some employees earn so much in overtime, Bradford said working the shifts are generally voluntary, though he's resorted to "drafting" some employees to work recently.

"You've got 20 to 25 percent who don't want to work overtime and 10 to 15 percent who will work overtime every time they're called," he said.

As long as employees aren't too fatigued or injuring themselves, Bradford said he'd rather have them work overtime than leave the community without the service it needs.

"The individual that earned the overtime certainly worked for it," Khatib said of his officers.

How can the overtime costs be cut? Well, it's complicated, Bradford and Khatib agree.

To keep figures simple, if a department pays $1 million in overtime for a given year, it's not as simple as hiring 20 employees salaried at $50,000 a year.

Employee benefits generally add another 21 percent on top of their stated salaries, Bradford said. On top of that, departments must account for vacation time, sick leave and other variables.

"There's no way to say we could hire 10 people and that it's going to reduce our overtime by 'x' amount," he said.

Due to an ever-increasing call volume and the number of people living in the community, Bradford said he only expects costs to increase.

All things considered, it's really about finding the right balance between staffing levels, schedules and the unpredictable line of work they're in, Bradford said.

Khatib offered a similar explanation.

"Certainly if staffing stabilizes and we have a good year in terms of major crimes (fewer crimes,) then I would expect the amount expended to be somewhat less," he said.