City near tipping point on paying OT or hiring more firefighters
JANESVILLE Janesville firefighter overtime is projected to top $450,000 this year, and city council members want to know if the city could save money by adding three firefighters.
Pay and benefits for three firefighters would total about $195,000.
The department on average pays about $1,000 a day in overtime pay and associated benefits.
Fire Chief Jim Jensen said overtime has spiked for several reasons, including:
The city’s philosophy of holding staffing to a minimum to avoid high-cost benefits.
Injuries that have thinned firefighter ranks.
More employees taking family leave.
With more firefighters taking time off, the remaining firefighters work more overtime to cover those shifts. As the number of calls continues to rise, Jensen worries about firefighter fatigue, he recently told council members.
“It used to be we could go all night without a tone,” Jensen said. “Now, that never happens.” A tone is the sound that alerts firefighters to emergencies.
Firefighters work schedules exempted from federal labor law, allowing them to work 56 hours a week rather than the typical limit of 40 hours.
Janesville firefighters have negotiated a schedule of 24 hours on and 24 hours off. Schedules vary among departments—some use 48 hours on and 96 hours off, for example.
After working three 24-hour days separated by 24 hours off, Janesville firefighters get four days off. The schedule means firefighters work about 10 days a month.
Overtime has increased dramatically since the federal Family and Medical Leave Act was passed in 1993, Jensen said.
The Family and Medical Leave Act allows workers—male or female—to take off up to 84 days for the birth of a child, personal illness or family illness.
Firefighters earn one day of sick leave each month up to a maximum of 84 days and can use paid sick leave to cover family leave.
The department logged $42,000 of overtime in 1993, Jensen said. In 1994, it increased to $80,000. By 2008, firefighters logged almost a half-million dollars in overtime . The firefighters’ contract requires that they receive 24 hours of overtime pay as a premium if they are required to switch shifts to cover for another firefighter on long-term leave. Recently, the department had a high number of firefighter injuries and long-term illnesses, Jensen said. “That’s really hurt us,” he said.
Minimum staffing, more overtime
The city historically has avoided adding personnel because of the high cost of benefits , but adding firefighters might be cheaper than paying the rising overtime total, Jensen said.
“Any department with minimum staffing has problems with overtime,” he said.
The number of firefighters is the same as in 1980, even though the city has added a fifth fire station and two paramedic ambulances, Jensen said.
Each station now houses a fire truck run by three people and an ambulance staffed by two people. The exception is station No. 3, which has a truck with three people and no ambulance. Station No. 1 has an additional shift commander, bringing the number of personnel there to six.
Staffing five stations requires 24 people every hour every day. To maintain that level, the department has three shifts of 29 firefighters. That allows five people off on any day for vacation, illness or family leave.
Lately, five hasn’t been enough, Jensen said.
Firefighters usually like working extra hours for overtime, but Jensen sometimes must order people into work because there are not enough volunteers.
“That’s when I get concerned about the work schedule and the way our call volume has increased,” Jensen said.
Jensen recently told council members he is concerned firefighters are not getting enough rest, especially when they take on additional shifts.
Studies show recovery time is important to avoid sleep deprivation, he said.
“They’ve found firefighters can go 24 hours without sleep if they have time to recover the next day,” he said.
“The thing that scares me—because of overtime—what happens when (someone works) 72, 96 hours in a row? And that happens here, now, because of overtime. That is not uncommon.”
Firefighters must get Jensen’s approval to change shifts, and he considers the consecutive days they would be working.
“I know that some people can manage it better than others, but it’s a concern,” he said.
Overtime would decrease if reserve staffing were increased, he said. If no person was off, additional staff could help shift commanders during emergencies, he said.
Switching to a 40-hour work schedule wouldn’t solve the financial problem, he said.
If firefighters were limited to 40 hours a week, the city would need 33 additional firefighters, he said.
With starting wages and benefits, that would cost about $1.9 million a year.
“People say, ‘Why do we pay for them (firefighters) sleeping?’ Well, it’s a matter of economics today. We can’t go to a 40-hour schedule.”
The city historically has underestimated firefighter overtime, kept the levy lower and covered firefighter overtime with money leftover in other departments. Leftover money is hard to find now that budgets are so lean, Jensen said.
For 2013, City Manager Eric Levitt budgeted $340,000 for firefighter overtime. That’s about $120,000 more than 2012 but well short of the $450,000 expected by the end of 2012.