Union: Fla. fire, EMS workers 'getting destroyed mentally and physically' by excessive overtime

In the past year, Polk County first responders have been asked to pick up 4,495 mandatory OT shifts, totaling 89,434 hours

Dustin Wyatt
The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla.

POLK COUNTY, Fla. — At a time when they're responding to more 911 calls than usual during a pandemic, Polk County's firefighters and EMS personnel are "getting destroyed mentally and physically" by all of the overtime they're required to work due to low staffing levels as more employees leave, union leaders told The Ledger.

In the past year, Polk's first responders have been asked to pick up a total of 4,495 mandatory overtime shifts. That amounts to 89,434 hours of mandatory overtime across the department, at a cost of $2.5 million to taxpayers, according to data from Aug. 1, 2020 to Aug. 20, 2021, provided to the Polk County Professional Firefighters union by the county.

And the overtime — equal to roughly 449 hours per employee in the past year — isn't just a few hours at a time here and there. In most cases, the employees tasked with responding quickly to life or death emergencies are required to pick up 24-hour shifts once their regular 24-hour workday ends, union representatives say.

That means they're sometimes working 48 hours on end before getting a day of reprieve. The normal schedule for Polk County's first responders consists of a 24-hour shift followed by two consecutive days off.

"Forty-eight hours straight is not uncommon," said union Vice President Jon Hall, a five-year employee of the county's Fire Rescue Division. "There are way more people in our department working 48 hours at a time than there are people working the normal 24 hours. That stretch of 48 hours off doesn't actually exist."

County Manager Bill Beasley did not return an email or a phone call regarding the union's comments.

In an email, Mianne Nelson, the county's communications director, noted that a lot of counties are struggling to fill vacancies.

One example in Florida is Volusia County, which has lost 21 paramedics this year. The staffing challenges prompted the county to roll out $4,500 recruiting and $5,000 retention bonuses last month, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reported.

Another: Lake County, which had 41 vacancies in its EMS division as of Aug. 17, prompting the rural county to turn to neighboring communities to help with 911 calls, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

"Polk County Fire Rescue is not unlike any other organization today, in that there are vacant positions that are difficult to keep filled," Nelson said in the email.

Polk Fire Rescue currently has 199 employees working a combined 4,776 staffing hours per day to meet the county's response goals, she said.

Since 911 calls never stop and the county has to ensure that there are enough bodies in ambulances and in fire trucks to serve the public, Nelson noted that overtime is the only answer to not only vacancies but also employees on vacation or leave.

She said that all Fire Rescue employees are given sufficient latitude, per union bargaining agreements, to schedule or choose when they will be available for mandatory overtime.

She said that mandatory overtime accounted for 4.85% of the total hours worked in the past year, and that 74% of the overtime worked was voluntary.

"In other words, these were employees who chose to work overtime," Nelson said.

In the email, she also touched on COVID-19 and how the county has had to adjust.

"Our human capital resources are stretched in this COVID pandemic," Nelson said. " Polk County Fire Rescue has had to put additional transport vehicles (ambulances) into service to meet the increased call demand and the capacity concerns at our area hospitals."

Hall and union President Lee Stringer told The Ledger these challenges weren't introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic. It's an issue they've raised to county leadership for half a decade.

"Staffing has been a nightmare; it's not even a COVID issue," Stringer said. "It's an issue we've been having for years since about 2015."

But the pandemic has exacerbated the situation as the 911 call volume soars and more people leave the department.

On Aug. 13, the county reported that there were 35 vacancies within the Fire Rescue Division. In the past week, three more employees have quit, Stringer said.

The county confirmed that number. One left for maternity reasons, and one left because they live out of the county and took a position closer to their home, Nelson said. It's unclear what happened with the other employee.

To make matters worse, many first responders have been out over the past year because of COVID.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been 205 Fire Rescue employees who have missed more than 16,000 hours of work because they have either tested positive for COVID or reported COVID-type symptoms and could not work until they had negative tests, Nelson said.

Also, on any given day, there are about 30 employees (positions) on leave for such reasons as illness, military time off, funerals or vacations, according to the county.

These staffing shortcomings have reached extreme levels at a time when the department is responding to as many 400 emergency calls per day, roughly 42% more than usual.

Polk County Fire Chief Robert Weech, who did not return a phone call or email for this story, told the County Commission on Aug. 17 that the emergency response system is "critically stretched."

He encouraged the public to avoid calling 911 if they can help it. "If you have other ways of getting medical care, you need to exhaust those at this time so that we can deal with those other bigger emergencies."

Despite the system strain, Weech said his employees have been able to keep up for the most part and 70% of patients have not seen a delay in response times.

But in some parts of the county, ambulances are reaching patients as much as four minutes slower than usual, Weech said.

That's due, in part, to the time it takes patients to get admitted once they arrive via ambulance at the hospital.

He told the commission that he's proud of his team.

"Our first responders are working hard," Weech said, "That's a group that's committed, even when there is strain. I'm very proud of those folks."

Nelson also thanked first responders in her response to The Ledger.

"We are proud and thankful for the dedication and outstanding care that our Polk County Fire Rescue employees have shown to our residents and guests, especially during this long, unprecedented pandemic.

Union leaders told The Ledger that the department is still able to provide a "high level of service" to the public. But Hall and Stringer fear it's only a matter of time before the under-staffing and excessive overtime, if not addressed, results in burnout, lethargy, costly mistakes or oversights.

"Our concern is that we can't do this forever," Hall said. "How long can they keep this up?"

With few days off, employees are missing family time. They're unable to attend their son's or daughter's sporting events or recitals, Hall said.

"The duty these people signed up for is being overrun," he said. "We are being steamrolled."

Added Stringer, "These guys are just getting destroyed both physically and mentally."


(c)2021 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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