Report: Calif. firefighters pull in more than $250K in overtime
The average fire captain earned $301,791 in total compensation in 2016
By Teri Sforza
Orange County Register
ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — Except for a Vallejo firefighter who got a $2 million payout for wrongful termination, the list of California’s highest-earning public employees for 2016 is dominated by medical personnel – surgeons, physicians, psychiatrists, hospital directors – and a few investment officers from CalPERS, the world’s largest public employee retirement system.
The top paid folk from that world, not including benefits, ranged from $591,653 to $1 million, according to the most recent data from Transparent California, a nonprofit that would like a reboot of public employee benefits.
But some first responders did pretty well, too, according to the data. Michael Rubino, chief port pilot II in Los Angeles, topped the state among first responders, with pay of $582,734. Patricia Knudson, chief deputy sheriff in Riverside, was second, with pay of $505,520.
Then there are dozens of public workers who more than doubled their pay with huge amounts of overtime – overwhelmingly firefighters in departments from Los Angeles to Oakland, San Jose to Orange County.
None of the figures cited here include benefits. Consider:
- The biggest overtime earner was Charles F. Ferrari, Los Angeles fire captain II, with a base salary of $123,025 and overtime pay of $334,655. Ferrari’s total pay was $469,198, according to the data.
- On his heels were Los Angeles Fire Captain James P. Vlach, with total pay of $483,730; and Los Angeles firefighter Donn D. Thompson, at $424,913.
- Riverside Utilities Electric Power System Dispatcher Donald Dahle had a base salary of $110,145, and overtime of $257,720. His total pay was $373,235.
- Orange County Fire Authority Captain Gregory Bradshaw had base pay of $116,846, and overtime of $245,350. His total pay was $412,689.
Transparent California collects and publishes the same public pay data that the state controller’s office does, but includes names.
The average fire captain for the Orange County Fire Authority earned $301,791 in total compensation – pay and benefits – last year. That was the highest in the state and perhaps the nation, said Robert Fellner, research director for Transparent California.
Overtime is the vehicle that allows that to happen – and it’s an issue that agencies have been grappling with for years, and largely failing to tame.
In many public safety agencies statewide, police and firefighters can boost their overtime pay by counting vacation hours as time worked – a lucrative perk that costs taxpayers millions, some elected official have said.
Officials at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department branded this a “disconcerting trick,” and deputies gave it up in 2008.
“In this practice, an employee working large amounts of overtime consistently takes a day off per pay period,” said an audit. “This practice allows the employee to receive paid time off … and then work more days of overtime at other points during the week, still earning more than he/she would if he/she had just worked a straight schedule.”
The perk is common and has been enjoyed by firefighters with the Los Angeles Fire Department and public safety workers with the California Highway Patrol, the California Department of Forestry and Fire, as well as those with the cities of Riverside, Long Beach, Anaheim, Santa Ana, Huntington Beach, Irvine and many others.
In 2014, Orange County Fire Authority firefighters joined Sheriff’s deputies in giving up the perk as part of a new contract. It was supposed to save $1.7 million in overtime costs.
That hasn’t panned out. Overtime at OCFA ran $46.1 million last year, up from $39.2 million in 2014.
Though proponents in Orange County and elsewhere say the overtime rules actually help save money, others disagree.
“It’s crazy,” said Fellner of Transparent California. “They really need to get to the root of the problem. They’ve been talking about it for years, but things haven’t changed. They need to get serious and implement an overtime cap that actually caps overtime.”
Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Peter Sanders the perk is still in place at his agency, and it hasn’t been an issue in recent contract negotiations.
Both OCFA and the LAFD are leaning on overtime because so many employees are retiring at a time when new recruits aren’t ready. Filling shifts via overtime is less expensive than hiring new public safety workers, who have very expensive benefits, officials said.
“Retirement is our issue,” said Dave Spencer, a spokesman and battalion chief for the Orange County Fire Authority. “Many agencies are struggling to keep up with attrition.”
The Fire Authority’s annual analysis of overtime usage, completed in March, found that an extraordinary fire season, open positions and vacancies due to promotion and retirements forced many employees with specialty skills to work overtime.
The OCFA has been “aggressively… conducting academies to help reduce the impact to the employee and distribution of overtime,” the analysis said. “OCFA staff is also working with the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association to enhance the existing policies to reduce the amount of forced overtime. The current policy is to allow employees to voluntarily work up to 120 continuous hours, subject to the Battalion Chief’s approval. OCFA staff will continue to reduce the consecutive hour rule back to 96, when our vacancies are filled and the need to force employees to work shifts are minimized.”
Paying overtime is nearly 28 percent more cost-effective than hiring a full time benefited employee, OCFA’s analysis said – and it saved the agency $15.6 million last year.
The story is much the same in Los Angeles.
“Yes, as a general rule, filling shifts via overtime is actually more cost effective than hiring AND allows us to keep all of our resources (fire engines and ambulances) staffed and open 24/7, without compromising public safety,” said LAFD spokesman Sanders by email. “However, our situation is unique (and significantly compounded) by the fact that we hired no new firefighters between 2009 and mid-2014.
“That five-year hiring freeze saw us lose hundreds of positions due to retirements and attrition that we were unable to fill. In order to keep all of our resources open every day we were required to pay overtime. Members were required to also work at least one or two shifts a month on a mandatory basis to keep fire and (emergency medical) resources open. Since we began recruiting and hiring again, we have managed to close the gap with every new class of firefighters that hits the field. We expect that gap to continue closing as we keep hiring new firefighters and have already seen a big drop in the amount of required and voluntary overtime.
“However, we will always need to pay some overtime due to shifts needed (as) coverage for sickness, vacation, injuries etc.,” Sanders said.
The financial picture is complicated for the Orange County Fire Authority, a public safety agency that stands on its own as a separate, independent government. That means it must grapple with expensive, unfunded pension liabilities that plunge its balance sheet into the red, while entities like the Los Angeles Fire Department are cushioned by a large city government and its many non-public-safety workers, who have less expensive benefits.
The red ink at the Orange County Fire Authority shrank nearly 5 percent last year, to $160.7 million. The Fire Authority is aggressively paying down its unfunded pension liabilities to the tune of $50 million to $60 million a year, said Lori Zeller, assistant chief of business services.
In related analyses, Transparent California found that overtime pay was up 19 percent in Anaheim; 18.5 percent in Buena Park: 17 percent in Irvine and Costa Mesa; and 14 percent in Fullerton.
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