When workers are sick, on vacation or off-duty because of a holiday, who picks up the slack?
Some employees catch up when they return. But that's not possible in public safety. Short staffing of police and firefighters might literally mean the difference between life and death. So if a cop calls in sick, someone covers his or her shift. Same goes for firefighters and paramedics.
Filling those shifts means paying a premium, and for the city of Colorado Springs that overtime bill has more than doubled since 2009 when the city began laying people off following the 2008 recession.
According to an Independent analysis of overtime data for general-fund departments, obtained through open-records laws:
• Overtime costs between 2009 and 2015 skyrocketed from $4.7 million to $9.8 million. Based on the first half of this year, overtime is on pace for a record $10.6 million.
• The king of overtime is the Colorado Springs Fire Department, which paid $4.7 million last year for overtime, due in part to policies that build in automatic overtime in every firefighter's paycheck. Last year, the Fire Department's overtime comprised 48.2 percent of the city's total, averaging $11,404 per sworn firefighter.
• The Police Department paid $4.1 million in overtime last year, about 42 percent of the total and an average $6,271 per sworn officer. This year's overtime spending shows the average could grow to $8,000 per officer.
• Some workers' overtime pay rivals their regular pay.
"Yes, it's on our radar screen," Mayor John Suthers says in an interview. "I think we're at the point now where the strategy will be to hire more FTEs [full-time equivalents]. We're also going to embark on some strategies to reduce overtime."
Suthers declined to elaborate, saying he wished to share that information with the rank and file before discussing it publicly, but he said the changes will impact the 2017 budget.
Overtime pay can be an effective management tool, because at times it's more economical to pay extra money for longer hours than to add employees who may later become underutilized, according to Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene in a 2009 column for governing.com. Besides that, adding employees brings other costs, such as pensions and health benefits.
In Colorado Springs, most overtime goes to public safety workers. After police and fire, which have spent $2.55 million and $2.9 million this year on overtime, respectively, through June, public works is the next highest, at $215,644.
Both police and fire departments have operated below their authorized strengths for years. Records show that only during 2010 and 2014 did the Police Department exceed its authorized strength — by seven and 11 officers, respectively. The other years saw shortages ranging from two to 30. When 2016 began, CSPD had 41 fewer officers than its authorized strength of 683.
The Fire Department's situation has been more dire. It's operated below authorized strength since 2009, when CSFD had 40 fewer on the payroll than the allowed 433. The gap has gradually narrowed to 11 of its allowed 424 firefighters this year, records show.
Both departments were bolstered recently by the graduation of recruit classes. Police added 43 in June and will start another class of 50 in October. CSPD graduated 156 recruits from 2013 to 2015, says police spokesman Lt. Howard Black. Those officers filled slots created by resignations and retirements, but the CSPD, Black says, is "still trying to get back to strength from the recession years."
The Fire Department added 10 firefighters in July and will begin a class of 22 in August, graduating in December.
Filling every shift is a must for police and fire departments, so it's no surprise that the city's top 20 overtime earners in 2016 are either firefighters (14) or police officers (six).
Under city policies, police officers work a standard 28-day pay period in which all hours worked above 80 hours in each 14-day period are compensated at time-and-a-half. Firefighters work 27-day pay cycles in which all hours worked in excess of 204 hours are compensated at time-and-a-half. Because firefighters are scheduled to work nine 24-hour shifts in each cycle, they end up working 216 hours, which automatically means 12 hours of overtime in each cycle.
"In our world, we are most economically efficient when we have people on overtime up to a certain point," says Deputy Fire Chief Steve Dubay, "because when we hire [someone], we're paying salary and benefits, pension and training. But when we have people working on overtime, the pension costs, training, equipment, benefits are already paid for."
Dubay cited a CSFD study three years ago that shows optimum staffing requires six of the 122 firefighters on duty any given day be on overtime. "When we exceed that best practice, it's time to hire someone," he says.
But some have carried overtime a little far. One firefighter paramedic has led the "top 20" overtime recipients list both last year and this year. He's been with the city nearly 30 years and is paid $26 per hour straight time.
He tallied $57,705 in overtime alone in 2015 plus collecting regular pay of $75,336. Through July 8, his 2016 overtime pay actually outpaced his regular pay — $47,097 in overtime, compared to $40,781 in regular pay. Simple math shows that firefighter paramedic worked roughly 325 hours, on average, per 27-day pay cycle, or 109 more hours per cycle than normal.
So it's a fair question to ask what the city sacrifices in readiness and capability by allowing public safety workers to put in so many hours. Are firefighters and cops at the top of their game after working dozens of overtime hours in a pay cycle?
A University of Massachusetts Medical School study report, issued in 2005, found that "working in jobs with overtime schedules was associated with a 61% higher injury hazard rate compared to jobs without overtime." The study noted research has linked overtime and extended work schedules with increased risk of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, fatigue, stress, depression, musculoskeletal disorders, chronic infections, diabetes and general health complaints.
The Centers for Disease Control National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports impacts of long shifts and extra time include increased fatigue, lower cognitive function, declines in vigilance on task measures, and increased injuries.
Black says it's been a struggle to fill shifts adequately to maintain quick responses to Priority One calls, and those times are increasing to 12 to 13 minutes from a goal of 10 minutes or less. At the same time, officers' well-being must be considered. "We're constantly talking with sergeants, lieutenants and commanders in making sure we're paying attention to individuals," he says. "We're very, very mindful of officers and their overtime."
Dubay notes that many fire departments rely on overtime to fill shifts. That said, CSFD doesn't allow any firefighter to work more than three consecutive shifts, or 72 hours at a time, and most shifts are filled by those who volunteer for overtime. A firefighter must be off for 12 hours before returning to work, he adds. (Firefighters who work 24-hour shifts aren't awake the entire time, although they might be if a major event takes place.)
Still, Dubay acknowledges that supervisors monitor personnel for fatigue and burnout. "We know people need their time off," he says. "There's still the human factor."
Of particular concern is the shortage of paramedics. Authorized for 83, the department has only 72. Because it can take a year to train paramedics, CSFD always seems to be playing catch-up, Dubay says. One solution, he says, is "lateral entry," meaning applicants with prior paramedic training are fast-tracked through a seven-week academy instead of the standard 17 weeks. And the department looks for applicants who already are paramedics.
But considering paramedics tend to advance out of those jobs fairly quickly, Mayor Suthers says, "We may have to change some pay grade issues to make it more conducive to stay a paramedic."
Other factors at play in firefighter overtime include mandatory attendance at meetings dealing with safety, promotions, facilities, personal protective equipment, apparatus and the like, which is compensable time, Dubay says. Also, since 2009, the city has added two fire stations and two two-person squads to run medical calls — despite staffing not changing much.
Dubay feels the department is committed to being good stewards of taxpayer money, using overtime as needed.
"We're not just giving that money away," he says. "They're working their butts off for it."