Audit: Calif. fire dept. spent more than $13M on overtime pay

Two firefighters each worked more than 6,000 hours, which amounted to "almost 70 percent of the time they are living and breathing"

By Anita Chabria
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Sacramento firefighters worked more than a quarter-million overtime hours in 2015, with some firefighters working thousands of extra hours, according to a new city audit released Thursday.

The Sacramento Fire Department spent more than $13 million on overtime pay in 2015, in addition to more than $44 million in regular pay, based on the report by City Auditor Jorge Oseguera.

The audit found that more than 90 employees worked at least 1,000 extra hours beyond the regular 3,000 that year. Two employees each worked more than 6,000 hours, which amounted to “almost 70 percent of the time they are living and breathing,” Oseguera said.

The top 10 earners at the department were all rank-and-file employees with significant overtime pay; Fire Chief Walt White earned less than 10 firefighters under his command.

One captain nearly tripled his pay by earning $168,876 in overtime by working an extra 2,971 hours, putting his compensation at nearly $300,000 and making him the department’s top overtime earner. The captain was not identified by name in the report.

Fire Department spokesman Chris Harvey said the overtime was necessary because the department was severely understaffed.

“In order to keep our fire engines and trucks open every day ... those positions have to be filled by overtime firefighters,” Harvey said. “That’s basically what was necessary under the circumstances because we were so short-handed.”

The audit said that under current staffing models, the department needs 169 employees on each of the three shifts it runs in 24-hour period. In 2015, the department was so thinly staffed that on any given day, it needed about 589 people available, and had only 516.

Harvey said the department hired about 60 firefighters in 2016 when the city increased funding after the recession, and expects to hire 60 more by summer, bringing the department to full staff. He said the department remains about “40 to 50 positions short.”

Roberto Padilla, spokesman for the union that represents local firefighters, echoed that position and said the report is “misleading” because the department’s low staffing levels forced mandatory overtime for many employees to meet base staffing needs. He estimated that about 10,000 hours of overtime were not voluntary, and that while firefighters may have voluntarily picked up many shifts, the department depended on them to do it.

“The overtime was out of control because of a lack of staffing,” Padilla said.

Padilla also attributed some overtime to a fierce wildfire season in California. Those included the Rough Fire in Fresno that burned more than 150,000 acres and the Butte Fire in Amador that claimed more than 70,000 acres.

Padilla said local crews were sent to some of those fires to help, and the city was later reimbursed for costs by the state.

“The state of California was burning to pieces, literally,” he said.

Harvey said the department has mandatory agreements with the state to provide firefighters in emergency situations. In 2015, he said it sent more than 100 personnel to 25 out-of-county incidents. He said the department was reimbursed for those costs, but was unable to provide the exact amount Thursday.

Padilla said the report should be viewed as a “public safety” warning that Sacramento still needs more firefighters and fire stations to meet its growing size and density. Oseguera’s report found that the department lacked adequate controls to ensure firefighters received required breaks, and a report commissioned by the city last year found that it needed additional fire stations to support new growth.

“It’s not about our wages,” Padilla said. “What should be shocking is the number of hours our members had to work to keep staffing up.”

Oseguera said that his office did not find instances of fraud in overtime reporting, but one major concern was that the department lacked a good way to track overtime. The department couldn’t provide documentation his office requested, and he found that employees were able to enter their own overtime hours or inform supervisors via email after they had worked overtime.

Oseguera said the department had been working with his office to implement some of his suggested changes, and that he thought “absolutely” overtime costs would decline as more staff is hired.

Copyright 2017 The Sacramento Bee
All Rights Reserved

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