The Los Angeles County Fire Department is facing scrutiny over departmental overtime and payroll costs. According to the Los Angeles Times (Times), overtime costs for the more than 4,800-member department has increased 36 percent in the past 5 years. The department spent over $200 million on overtime in 2017. In response to these increases, the county recently launched an internal audit of the department’s pay and overtime practices.
According to the Times report, fire department employees received on average $49,000 in overtime last year. Among the fire department’s top earners in 2017 were Capt. Rick Mullen, who logged 6,599 work hours and Capt. Sergio Burciaga, who logged an astounding 7,449 hours. Just for reference, there are 8,760 hours in a calendar year. Both Mullen and Burciago earned more than $450,000 in total compensation in 2017. The department’s highest paid employee was Battalion Chief Tom Ray. Ray earned approximately $175,000 in base salary and an additional $283,000 in overtime.
According to the Times, there are several reasons for significant increases in overtime the past few years. First, the department has been unable to maintain “staffing targets,” following a wave of recent retirements. This shortage is magnified due to a hiring slowdown during the 2008 recession. Second, there were an ‘inordinate’ number of “major emergencies” during 2017. These included the Thomas, Rye, and Creek fires as well as major hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Texas. LA County Firefighters provided assistance with these emergencies. This assistance comes at a cost.
Major emergencies like these are especially difficult the budget and manage. The firefighters that are detailed to the major emergencies will receive their pay, in addition to any overtime required, while the department has to back-fill the vacancy created by this deployment. The costs can be staggering. However, in these types of natural disasters or major emergencies there is typically federal assistance available to offset these expenses. The Times article does not provide any details regarding federal reimbursements following these larger natural disasters and major emergencies which could help put some of these figures in perspective.
Hopefully, the county’s audit will be able to provide some more useful information and answer some key questions such as:
- How much overtime is attributable to the major emergencies, as opposed to vacancies as a normal result of operations?
- Does the county need to hire additional firefighters to reduce the seemingly unsustainable amount of overtime some firefighters are currently working?
- If the county needs to hire additional firefighters, what will those costs be? How do these costs compare with paying overtime?
From a human resources perspective, the effects of unsustainable levels of overtime can take a toll on both fire department finances and operations. Well-managed small to moderate amounts of overtime can benefit all involved, including employees, management, and even the taxpayers. However, unsustainable amounts of overtime can impact a fire department’s ability to deliver effective services to the community. It will be very interesting to see what actions the county’s auditor recommends.