The word overtime can be music to the ears of workers trying to earn a little extra cash, but to others, it means more stress and less time with their families. When it comes to city employees, it means a bigger bill for taxpayers.
NBC 7 Investigates discovered those costs are higher than ever. In 2021, the city doled out $113,365,425 in overtime pay. That’s about $3 million more than 2020 and $16 million more than 2019. Four city workers earned more than $200,000 in overtime, on top of their regular pay. Two of them work for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.
“We have an ever-increasing call volume,” San Diego City Firefighters Association president Jesse Conner told us. “Our folks are running constantly.”
Conner understands how longer hours for fire crews equal higher costs for taxpayers. The normal life of a San Diego firefighter means a 56-hour workweek, and when an emergency happens, concerns over the amount of overtime being accrued take a back seat. In 2021, about 1,600 fire-rescue workers earned nearly $52,936,225 in OT. That’s nearly half of the city’s total.
“It does seem astronomical,” Conner said. “But when you think that a normal office worker works 2,080 hours. That's 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. A firefighter works a 56-hour workweek, and so they're working 2,900 hours a year. An extra 1,000 hours is absolutely doable.”
There’s more than one factor driving the cost increase, Conner said. Most recently, he pointed to COVID.
“Two months ago, we had over 160 firefighters in isolation,” Conner said, “meaning that they were just not permitted to work because they had been exposed or were positive for COVID and that requires other firefighters to backfill for them.”
At the end of the day, Conner said, it's all about staffing. He said there aren’t enough workers to do the job, saying the department is down 53 full-time employees.
Mayor Todd Gloria agrees that staffing is a problem, and told us, “We have to run the eighth largest city in the country, and we often do it with not enough staff. The easiest and most effective way to make sure that there’s a 911 dispatcher to answer your call, a firefighter to get to your doorstep or a librarian to unlock the doors at your branch library is to offer overtime to employees.”
The mayor said the city’s staffing issues didn’t happen overnight.
“We have years and years of underinvestment in our city workforce that we have to address, and we’re doing that now,” Gloria said.
Just last month, NBC 7 Investigates reported on hiring and retention problems within the San Diego Police Department, which racked up more than $36,677,512 in overtime in 2021. Conner echoed the sentiments of the police union.
“We're trying to overcome historic pay deficiencies where, you know, we're just not competitive,” Conner said. “So we're not able to attract the amount of candidates that we used to.”
The mayor said his current $5 billion city budget proposal will put millions more dollars into police and fire-rescue budgets. Talks are also underway to improve compensation for both departments.
“We are currently negotiating with our firefighters' union to provide pay raises and other benefit enhancements to make sure that we remain a competitive employer,” Gloria said.
Conner said one benefit of fixing the problem goes beyond dollars and cents: Extra hours on the job add up mentally. While overtime is offered to volunteers first, Conner said, the department has been forcing firefighters to work longer hours to keep emergency response effective.
“Heavy overtime is both a blessing and a curse for our firefighters,” Conner said. “It takes a toll, and a lot of times our firefighters don't realize it's taking a toll. When you're talking about firefighters working this relentless schedule, it's more of a chronic exposure, and it's almost like their edges are being sanded down constantly but they don't know it.”
The San Diego City Firefighters Association also said the city needs to add anywhere from 60-100 firefighter positions.
“I think one of the problems historically has been that we’re undersized, and we have to right-size the fire department,” Conner said.
The mayor’s current budget proposal would only add two more full-time firefighter positions to Fire-Rescue. A representative for Gloria disagreed with Conner’s statement that the Fire-Rescue department isn’t big enough and gave us this statement:
There is sufficient staffing in the Fire-Rescue Department to meet current needs, and the Mayor’s proposed fiscal year 2023 budget continues to fund 72 Relief Pool positions, which backfill leave taken by other firefighters and limit overtime spending. We are working to fill these positions and we’re optimistic that they will be filled by June 2023. Once they are filled, the Mayor and the Fire Chief will assess the need for additional Relief Pool personnel.
NBC 7 Investigates looked at firefighter staffing levels over the past 10 years. The city added positions some years and eliminated positions at other times.