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Overtime adds up big for some Fresno city employees, but there are reasons for it

Fresno firefighters battle fire at historic home

Fresno firefighters battle a five-alarm blaze that claimed the historic Rehorn home near downtown Fresno in February 2016. Fresno Fire Department personnel received more than $9.1 million in overtime pay in 2016, or an average of almost $27,000 on
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Fresno firefighters battle a five-alarm blaze that claimed the historic Rehorn home near downtown Fresno in February 2016. Fresno Fire Department personnel received more than $9.1 million in overtime pay in 2016, or an average of almost $27,000 on

Overtime pay is nice when it shows up on the paycheck, and for Fresno city employees, overtime added up to nearly $20 million in 2016.

To most folks, the $19.5 million in overtime paid by the city and reported to the state Controller’s Office sounds like a lot of money. But it’s actually a tiny drop in Fresno’s $1.25 billion budget, and just over 8 percent of what the city spent on salaries and wages for its entire workforce of 4,255 employees.

The figures are more meaningful on an employee’s paycheck. They represent an average of just over $8,000 in extra pay for the 2,400 or so city employees who accrued overtime during the year – or about 11.6 percent of the average total pay for the year for those workers.

There are demands for services, particularly in public safety, that you can’t just put off until someone comes back to work.

Bruce Rudd, Fresno interim assistant city manager

Fresno’s former city manager, Bruce Rudd, acknowledged that overtime is a significant but unavoidable expense for the city. “There are demands for services, particularly in public safety, that you can’t just put off until someone comes back to work,” said Rudd. A police officer cannot leave the scene of a crime investigation or a firefighter drop the hose during a fire and head home because their shift ends. “Overtime is one of those expenses that you incur to meet the expectations of the public.”

Rudd, who retired earlier this year but remains on city staff as interim assistant city manager, said Fresno – like many cities – faces a trade-off between overtime expenses and salary savings from unfilled positions.

“There’s a saving in permanent positions, but that means your overtime is high,” Rudd added. “It’s essentially a push.”

Some employees earn much more in overtime than others. Employees in the city’s fire and police departments received more than 78 percent of all overtime pay. Two firefighters, in fact, received thousands of dollars more in overtime pay in 2016 than they did in their base salary. The data reflect that one Fresno firefighter with a base salary of just over $77,000 was paid another $88,500 in overtime. Another firefighter received $82,400 in overtime on top of his base salary of about $74,000.

Nearly 340 Fresno firefighters, fire captains and battalion chiefs collected more than $9.1 million in overtime pay, for an average of almost $27,000 for each of those positions.

“If you take a fire captain, for example, that person is starting off at around $100,000, plus another $40,000 for benefits, training and equipment,” Rudd said. “Now when you send that position out to work overtime as well, you’re probably looking at $170,000 for the year for just that one position.”

EPZ BREV_REHORNFIRE 01
Fresno firefighters battle a five-alarm blaze that claimed the historic Rehorn home near downtown Fresno in February 2016. Fresno Fire Department personnel received more than $9.1 million in overtime pay in 2016, or an average of almost $27,000 on top of regular wages for each of the 338 firefighters, captains, battalion chiefs and other employees who earned overtime for the year. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA Fresno Bee file

But the $30,000 or so in overtime per fire captain costs less than shelling out another $140,000 in salary and benefits to hire another captain. “We’re getting close to where the balance between overtime and filling a position is almost a push, but we’re still at a point where overtime is less because we don’t incur the cost of benefits,” Rudd said. “That’s a fixed expense.”

In the police department, more than $6.1 million was paid out in overtime to 928 employees, from officers and sergeants to dispatchers, crime scene and evidence technicians and administrative clerks – an average of nearly $6,600 per employee.

Across all of the other city departments, about $4.3 million in overtime was paid to workers running the gamut from accountants and bus drivers to tree trimmers and welders – 1,154 workers in all, for an average of $3,702 per employee in overtime for the year.

There were another 1,835 employees who received no overtime pay at all in 2016. The figures from the state controller don’t distinguish between full-time and part-time workers.

Flexibility versus burnout

Overtime can provide a city like Fresno with staffing flexibility at a lower cost than hiring another worker once salary and benefits are taken into account. The average annual pay – including base salary, overtime and other pay such as bonuses or incentives – among all city employees was just over $55,500 in 2016. Benefits such as medical and dental insurance, retirement contributions and other extras tack another $70.5 million onto the city’s personnel expenses. That’s an average of about $20,600 per person for the 3,427 employees who qualified for benefits in 2016.

In both the police and fire departments, there are employees who eagerly volunteer for overtime shifts to pick up some extra pay, while there are others who would rather enjoy their time off, don’t want overtime, and are hesitant to answer the phone on their days off because they don’t want to be called back in to work.

The search for a suspect who allegedly fired at a police officers in southeast Fresno in January 2016 forced a big callout by Fresno police.

“My biggest concern with overtime is burnout,” Rudd said. Among both police officers and firefighters, he said, there is a fear that too much reliance on overtime to fill vacant shifts “will cause fatigue and burnout to the point where mistakes are made.”

Retirements and difficulty filling vacancies contribute to the need for overtime to fill gaps in coverage. “In the case of the police department, we normally have trouble filling positions even though we budget to hire more officers. But the public still expects an officer to show up in a reasonable period of time,” Rudd said. “It’s a symptom of the inability to get people hired faster than the rate at people are leaving the organization. We’re not looking to save money by paying overtime; we’re trying to fill positions as fast as we can.”

The budget for police includes money to bring the department up to 825 sworn officers by the end of June 2018. But when the department started this budget year on July 1, the force was already 43 officers short of of last year’s budgeted personnel. And that didn’t include almost 70 officers who were sidelined from duty because of injuries.

Attrition has also been an issue in the fire department. The city recently started a “drill school” class to train potential firefighting recruits, but until those new people take their posts, overtime will continue to occur. Because of minimum daily staffing requirements, the department tries to maintain a “shift replacement pool” of firefighters to fill in when someone is on vacation or calls in sick.

“We have minimum daily staffing requirements, so if someone’s out sick, the only choice you have is to fill that shift and make sure that truck or engine company is staffed, or if there aren’t enough people, to close down that company” for the day, Rudd said. “If you did that, there might be a fire station that people think is staffed but isn’t   I don’t think the public would find that acceptable.”

Fresno’s reliance on overtime has grown in recent years. In 2011, overtime added up to $11.3 million. By 2014, it was almost $15.6 million, before lurching to more than $19 million in 2015 and 2016.

Rudd said some of the increase is due to the aftermath of the 2007-09 economic recession that forced Fresno to lay off employees and cut expenses to avoid the prospect of bankruptcy. “We had fewer people available to do the same amount of work. So you’ve got a combination of layoffs and, when we started rebuilding, our inability to fill positions fast enough.”

Over the past couple of years, the city has also seen its costs rise for salaries, benefits and other compensation through collective bargaining with employee unions, Rudd added. When an employee’s salary goes up, so does the amount they make when they work overtime hours.

As the city steps up its efforts to fill vacant positions in the police, fire and other departments, “we won’t completely eliminate overtime, but we’ll lower the amount of overtime that’s spent,” Rudd said. “If we could fill every vacant position in the police department, we would do it in a heartbeat. If we could have, we would have hired 14 firefighters eight months ago.”

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