Firefighter overtime cheaper than more hires, city says

Elgin, Ill. officials say paying overtime saves 20 percent in the long run versus hiring more firefighters; the fire union says the model compromises safety


By Mike Danahey
The Courier-News

ELGIN, Ill. — Elgin pays out millions of dollars each year in overtime to public works staff, police officers and firefighters.

City officials believe paying overtime while maintaining fewer people on the payroll will cost less -- over time -- than adding more positions to the city's staff.

"Considering legacy costs such as insurance and pensions, we figure that we actually save 15 to 20 percent in the long run by using the model of paying out overtime instead of hiring additional employees," Elgin City Manager Sean Stegall said. "Bringing on a new employee is a multi-million dollar decision, given that many if not most police, fire and public works employees spend 30 years or so, their entire careers, with the city."

Stegall said the push to use more overtime than in prior years began in 2009 as a post-recession move.

According to information obtained through a freedom of information request filed by the Courier-News, in Elgin, overtime in public works ran $1.8 million in 2014 and $1.7 million in 2015. For the fire department, overtime ran $1.2 million in 2014 and $1.8 million in 2015. For the police department, overtime ran $2.5 million in 2014 and $2.9 million in 2015.

The top five overtime earners in public works in 2014 each added more than $40,000 to their paychecks, and the top six in 2015 earned more than $40,000 in overtime pay, according to documents provided by the city's human resources department. In each year, the top overtime earner brought in about $47,000 in extra pay.

Of the top five overtime earners in the fire department in 2014, three took in more than $31,000 in extra pay and two collected more than $52,000. The top overtime earner took in almost $55,000 in extra pay. In 2015, the spread among the top five ran from about $49,000 to almost $85,000 in extra pay.

In the police department, of the top five overtime earners in 2014, three made more than $32,000 in extra pay, one made more than $40,000 and the top earner added more than $40,000 to his paycheck. In 2015, two made more than $37,000 in overtime, one brought in about $40,000 in extra pay, and the top overtime earner collected more than $75,000 in additional pay.

Elgin's public works department last year had 119 workers earning overtime, the fire department 131, and the police list included 235 people, according to the documents provided. According to Police Cmdr. Ana Lalley that includes sworn officers, of which the department had 182 by the end of 2015.

Director of Public Services Greg Rokos noted that weather -- particularly winter storms -- can play a factor in the amount of overtime his department pays.

Rokos, Lalley and Fire Chief John Fahy all noted other contributing factors can include the number of employees calling in sick, staff shortages, worker injuries, and openings yet to be filled.

"Overtime has gradually and significantly increased over time, with the low-manning/high overtime model and the concern for legacy costs," Fahy said.

Fahy also noted that with their 24 hours-on, 48 hours-off shifts, firefighters average more than 50 hours per week on the clock. Instead of paying everyone overtime beyond 40 hours, departments give firefighters "work reduction days" called Kelly Days. Currently, by contract, Elgin firefighters get a Kelly Day every ninth shift, or 13 a year -- but the shifts still have to be filled.

Another contributing factor to the dollar amount of overtime paid is the department requirement that one sworn officer be on duty at any one time -- with a bump in pay to whomever may cover for a higher ranking employee during a shift.

As with police, overtime also is first offered to those with rank and seniority, but Fahy said the department has a rotating, computerized list to try to keep at least the opportunity for overtime fairly distributed.

While there is no cap on overtime, Fahy said the topic has been debated. A concern is that, with Elgin's busy department, someone working too many hours could be fatigued doing the job. No safety issues have arisen so far, Fahy said.

Overtime "is part of the job, and guys are willing to work it," Pat Devaney, president of the Associated Firefighters of Illinois said. "We've got to maintain safe staffing levels."

But, he said problems come when staff members are working overtime on a regular basis or working multiple 24-hour shifts in a row.

"We really think it can affect safety," Devaney said.

Fahy also has concerns about the overtime model and younger employees.

"It might be generational thing, but some (millennials) don't seem to want overtime. It's different than decades ago when I started. They have working spouses, don't necessarily need the income and want to spend time with their families or doing other things," Fahy said.

With the police department, Lalley said a contributing factor to the overtime paid out last year compared to 2014 was that at one time the department was down as many as nine officers. With those posts filled, this year, as of the first three months, overtime paid out had dropped about $100,000 for the comparable time period. The need for officers to appear in court for cases can also contribute to overtime, Lalley said.

Police also pick up overtime for special detail for city events such as Nightmare on Chicago Street. Detail for the Grand Victoria-sponsored summer concerts in Festival Park and other special requests are paid for by the businesses, Lalley said.

The department and city also recoup costs through grants that cover other overtime detail such as seat belt safety checks and DUI roadblocks. A few officers also are on special detail with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, for which the department is reimbursed, Lalley said.

A 2012 study by the National Institute of Justice lists excessive overtime as a major contributor to officer stress and fatigue.

Research shows that fatigued officers use more sick leave, practice inappropriate use of force more frequently, become involved in more vehicle crashes, experience more accidental injuries, have more difficulty dealing with community members and other law enforcement agencies, and have a higher likelihood of dying in the line of duty, according to the study.

While there are no caps to overtime, Lalley said, supervisors monitor to make sure officers on overtime are being safe.

For comparison, Aurora in 2015 paid out more than $650,000 in public works overtime and more than $675,000 in 2014. For the police department, the overtime tab in 2015 was $2.9 million, and in 2014 it ran $2.7 million. For the fire department the overtime paid in 2015 approached $2.6 million and in 2014 was more than $2 million.

According to recent U.S. Census figures Aurora has more than 200,000 residents while more than 112,000 people live in Elgin. The populations of both towns have been growing this decade.

Mirroring Elgin, Aurora city, police and fire officials cited cuts in staff during the 2008 economic downturn among the reasons employees work overtime hours. Police and fire officials also said staff work overtime to fill vacancies left by employees out sick, on vacation or long-term leave, or at training or covering other required duties. City officials said public works employees often work overtime to cover emergencies, such as those caused by weather.

"Instead of hiring additional staff members, with all the additional overhead -- pensions, insurance, etc., -- the use of overtime hours with current staff members is often a more cost-effective way to meet those demands," city officials said in a statement.

Aurora Beacon News reporters Sarah Freishtat and Hannah Leone contributed to this story.

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(c)2016 The Courier-News (Elgin, Ill.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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