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Police and Fire Overtime Unavoidable, Officials Say

Patch examines the controversial policies that govern how police and fire personnel in Orange County receive overtime pay.

Editor’s Note: This is the second in The county Sheriff’s Department and Orange County Fire Authority are hired by many cities to provide police and fire services. Their contracts are consistently some of the costliest items in local budgets, which are being voted on this month by city officials. 

Overtime for public safety personnel is unavoidable, especially in a region like Orange County, plagued by massive wildfires, busy freeways and urban crime hotspots, police and fire officials say.

Still, agencies have come under fire for how they schedule and manage overtime, particularly the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which at one point allowed deputies to take paid time off and get overtime in the same day. However, auditors say the department has cleaned up its act since 2008, under Sheriff Sandra Hutchens.

Officials often say working existing employees on overtime to fill scheduling gaps can be cheaper than hiring extra staffers and paying into their pension system and health benefits. 

Jane Reyes, senior director of administrative services for the Orange County Sheriff’s Deparment, said overtime hours paid to existing employees save an average of 9 percent over the cost of hiring new personnel.

Some conservative groups point out, however, that generous benefits required for all employees by union contracts keep agencies from hiring reserve staffers that could be compensated less generously and only be used to fill gaps.

SHERIFF'S OVERTIME AND REASONS FOR IT

In 2008, the OCSD was under fire after a performance audit criticized the department’s lack of rules to control extra pay, which resulted in exorbitant spending on overtime.

The department under Hutchens has addressed these concerns by drastically reducing overtime through a variety of measures that will be addressed in Part 4 of this series (earlier this year, the department presented the favorable results of a performance audit addressing deputies’ overtime).

A large portion of overtime is spent in contract cities, like the ones covered by Patch, and special districts, which cost $8.1 million. The money to pay for these services comes out of local city coffers.

The 2008 audit said jails used the most overtime, costing $20 million. With the attention to overtime reduction and the closing of multiple jail facilities, jails no longer gobble up as much overtime. Overall overtime costs have been cut by 54 percent—$25 million—since the 2008 audit.

"We're still using overtime in the jails, but a bare minimum," Reyes said. "The women's jail is still closed."

Other overtime money is spent on filling vacant positions, training employees and extending shifts to complete assignments such as undercover narcotics work, criminal investigations, booking requirements for arrestees, and transporting inmates between jail and courts.

Some overtime is covered by the state or federal government. For example, department overtime is reimbursed when there is a state or federal declaration of emergency and it requires overtime. In addition, overtime while performing services contracted to other agencies is reimbursed by those agencies (for example, the Orange County Transportation Agency, John Wayne Airport, etc.).

Most of the staffing for security services at the Orange County Fair is done on overtime, which is paid for by the state. The department also uses trained volunteers to help staff the fair.

“We run a 24/7 operation and a large amount of our overtime is paid to provide public safety services on county holidays, when employees have a day off but have to work on an overtime basis,” said OCSD spokesman John McDonald, although he didn't have a specific figure.

FIREFIGHTER POLICY AND REASONS FOR OVERTIME

Training and emergency response hours make up the bulk of overtime for Orange County Fire Authority personnel, although overtime spent fighting wildfires or responding to other disasters outside of Orange County is generally covered by the state or federal government, according to Jim Ruane, OCFA's finance manager and auditor.

However, if there is a local fire that is not declared a federal or state disaster area, then the overtime is usually not reimbursable.

As another measure to cut costs, OCFA has enacted a nearly two-year hiring freeze, said Lori Zeller, assistant chief of business services for OCFA. However, authority spokesman Kris Concepcion said a new academy will start in July to train several more firefighters because staffing has dropped so low.

Fire officials also said overtime is often cheaper than hiring extra personnel and having to cover the additional health and pension benefits.

But Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, argues that relying on overtime instead of new hires is bad management by politicians. Taxpayers don't get quality public safety work from tired firefighters, Vosburgh said.

(The Jarvis group was founded in 1978 to protect Proposition 13, the ballot measure that rolled back property taxes. The group's interests have since expanded to cover many causes for smaller government.)

Ruane said virtually all firefighter overtime is required for emergencies or training, meaning the department had no choice.

Nondiscretionary hours, which include emergency responses, backfill and mandated training, made up 91 percent, or $25,645,077, of total overtime hours in 2009, according to OCFA records. Training made up 6 percent and discretionary hours, which include community events or education, made up 3 percent.

But the union’s contract makes sure no single firefighter gets too much overtime at the expense of another.

The contract requires that overtime and backfill distribution be “fair and equitable,” Ruane said. The hours are based on employee availability, special qualifications needed for the position and the amount of overtime and backfill already clocked. The allocations are determined by a computer system.

“Firefighters already work one-third of their lives,” Concepcion said. “Firefighters work 40 percent more than the average worker; I think that’s one thing that none of these stories captures.”

They don’t start accruing overtime pay—time-and-a-half—until they’ve worked 56 hours in a week.

The biggest factors behind overtime are emergencies and 24-hour staffing requirements. (An exception occurred in 2009, when the Jesusita fire in Santa Barbara was the only major California wildfire, and backfill was that year’s main cause, Ruane said.)

The OCFA’s constant staffing policy states that stations must maintain the minimum staffing level, which varies from station to station, to keep units operational, Concepcion said. This is also required by the firefighters’ union contract. For example, a fire engine requires a captain, an engineer to drive and a firefighter, but a paramedic engine has two firefighters and two of the crew must be licensed paramedics.

Without constant staffing, units would have to be put out of service or stations closed, officials said. This would lead to longer response times and fewer resources available, Ruane said.


— San Clemente Patch Editor Adam Townsend contributed to this piece.

Julie Flores June 07, 2011 at 09:32 PM
You are not paid to sleep, you are paid to be on-call. You cannot do your job effectively as a firefighter from your own home. You can spend your entire shift without sleeping. It's interesting that there seems to be a desire to bring everyone down to the bare bones and no effort to bring everyone up. "If I don't have it, why should you" mentality? The conversation in the media that tells us that we don't need more taxes, we don't need teachers to have benefits, or firemen or policemen. The one that tells is that we need to give money to millionaires and oil companies because they will bring jobs. Corporations do not pay their fare share of taxes, they outsource this country's labor force, they pay for politicians anonymously, they make millions off of healthcare. And then they watch as average citizens rip each other to shreds. There is no job security, there is no health care for the millions of unemployed and workers have no rights. And that's just they way they want. It creates a cheap home-grown labor force with no bargaining power and no need to provide it with benefits.
shelly June 07, 2011 at 11:31 PM
Tom, What good would it be to call 911 if there is no one to respond immediately? Your argument about LAPD vs OCSD sounds like Army vs. Navy. All exist to protect the public and do a job that is vital to our society. We, the people, have decided public safety is worth paying for. Are you saying that keeping the public safe in LA is worth more than keeping the public safe in San Juan Capistrano? Are LA's citizens worth more than us? I am thankful to the the police officers in my city, other cities, in the county, in my state and in my country. Where ever I travel in the USA I know that police are a 911 call away. I am grateful for the low crime rate where I live and grateful for the police officers who are willing to do a dangerous job no matter where it is or the level of the danger!
Scott Mo June 08, 2011 at 04:20 AM
Tom, I am saddened by your comments as a former police officer. If the crime rate is higher in LA, doesn't that mean that you did NOT get the job done?
Shripathi Kamath June 08, 2011 at 06:12 AM
:-)
jeff s June 08, 2011 at 01:24 PM
Most FEDERAL employees get comp time - one for one - or 1.5 hrs comp for every one hour worked "overtime" - it is time to re-look this bloviated rdiculously expensive OVERTIME sham by these public (union $$ protected) employees. Also, on a separtae note - why are all the OC deputies i see, especially at the airport on electric scooters, almost universally overwight and grossly obese? must be a high on the hog good living indeed...

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