The Spokane Fire Department’s overtime budget was already drawing scrutiny from elected officials. Then, a pandemic happened.
The fire department is expected to close out 2020 about $3.5 million over its budget for overtime pay. It remains to be seen how much of the excess will be covered by state and federal pandemic assistance.
“We’re still almost double the cost, at this point, of our overtime that was budgeted from last year,” Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said.
At $2.5 million, the 2020 overtime budget was a cause for concern among members of the Spokane City Council before COVID-19 hit.
Although the department has yet to close the books on 2020, the final overtime pay figure is expected to be about $6 million. For context, the department’s entire 2020 budget was about $54.5 million.
The excess this year was blamed on employee absences due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our overtime costs, again, related most predominately to replacing people that were COVID-positive … and the shift replacement as a result, which is pretty staggering,” Schaeffer said.
The increased use of paid leave during the pandemic was not unique to Spokane, Schaeffer noted, as other cities across the country dealt with the same issue.
Employees enjoy the overtime pay – up to a point.
“For me, looking at working conditions, it’s not healthy if people are working 70 hours a week,” Tim Archer, president of the Spokane Firefighters Union, told The Spokesman-Review. “Given the nature of what we do, it can be unsafe.”
The department has yet to resort to mandatory holdovers, when an employee is forced to stay on an extra shift because nobody has volunteered to cover it, but Archer said “of course that’s my fear.”
However, Archer credited the city and department leadership for implementing strong COVID-19 protocols while maintaining adequate staffing levels.
“So far we’ve been able to get through this quite well,” Archer said.
The 2021 city budget includes up to $150,000 to fund a comprehensive study of the city fire and police departments’ overtime costs.
During a Finance and Administration Committee meeting on Monday, City Council President Breean Beggs wondered if the city should expand its roster of fire department employees for shift replacements.
“We don’t have floaters to do that, and it seems like when we’re running at 200% overtime, which means we’re paying time-and-a-half, there’s some room for that,” Beggs said.
The department used to have a robust pool of relief personnel on every shift, Schaeffer said, but its current staffing model doesn’t allow for it.
“Because we’ve added units, and we’ve added people to fill those units, those needs don’t allow us a lot of flexibility with extra people,” Schaeffer said.
The problem will be somewhat alleviated as the department fills about 20 positions that are vacant. It’s sending a class of 10 firefighters to training in March, and another 10 will begin later this year.
Schaeffer said there are opportunities for overtime cost savings if the department changes its staffing model, and that the firefighters union has been “pretty supportive” of making a change.
“We can’t really look at last year as a new normal by any means, but I do think there are some opportunities for improvement,” Schaeffer said.
For the union, it’s a balance. A bloated workforce is an expensive one, and puts employees at risk of layoffs. On the other hand, Archer said, “there’s a degree of overtime they can pay out if the staffing model is done appropriately.”
That sweet spot, Archer added, “makes you less vulnerable, and the city saves a degree of money by paying some overtime versus paying more full-time employees.”
“I think we’re in agreement on where that needs to be,” Archer said.
This story was corrected on Friday, Jan. 29 because it inaccurately described the Spokane Fire Department budget as part of the city’s general fund. It is a special revenue fund. The reference was removed.
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