When people, politicians or news media discuss police and fire services, the two "elephants in the room,” all they talk about are pensions and overtime costs. The pension issue is simple. It was very affordable for employers to pay into the pension system for decades. Then the investment bankers and their willing accomplices in the federal government had their way and the stock market crashed. This drove the cost of pension obligations through the roof and our local governments have been suffering since. It is not the employees fault anymore that it is the employers’ fault. The overtime matter is a different problem and it is a bit more complicated.
Peninsula cities introduced the idea of having employees work mass quantities of overtime in the early 1990s. Before that, employers carried extra staff to fill in for other employees on vacation, sick leave or disability leave. Through this system, overtime was virtually non-existent.
Then the employers devised a scheme to eliminate the extra staffing and fill the vacancies with other employees working overtime. Each city devised a system for selecting the employees and most employees stepped up to fill the overtime slots. But make no mistake about it. The overtime plan is mandatory. If no one steps up, management simply forces someone to work it.
The employers figured it was cheaper to fill spot vacancies with overtime than to keep a full-time employee around to fill them as they occurred. For many years, that math did not work out that well and it ended up costing employers more. But when the economy tumbled and pension costs went through the roof, the math began working out nicely for employers. Most cities froze hiring and forced the employees to work even more overtime. When more cost reductions are needed, employers, like Redwood City and Burlingame, simply cut off the overtime and shut down fire stations on certain days.
When the overtime idea first appeared, most employee groups strongly opposed it. The official union position is overtime is bad and safe staffing is better. In San Mateo, the idea caused so much turmoil the firefighters went to the ballot box to try to get an arbitration measure passed so they could have more tools to fight off the new overtime scheme.
While the official union position regarding the mass amounts of overtime remains unchanged, our members embraced the idea once they got used to it. Many of our members began saving money for kids’ college, increasing savings and doing other things to improve their standard of living. The firefighters are not home much but they are making more money.
The systems the cities use to fill the overtime slots does work well to generate volunteers but never forget that if no one volunteers, it’s all mandatory. It is a windfall for the employees, but a bigger benefit for employers. Today, there is a mathematical balance between staff levels and overtime that helps the employers keep costs as low as they can be.
Unfortunately, the media and some politicians have never gotten the concept. The latest fashion craze is to bash public employees and the overtime issue is one of the prime tools the bashers use. Some newspapers treat it as a scandal and publish what appears to he very high salary levels for police and fire employees. Politicians bemoan the costs and blame the employees. What the politicians who bash us don’t get, and the media won’t get, is that it was not our idea. Overtime is bad, it’s mandatory and the employees have no say in the matter.
Edwin Hawkins is the president of San Mateo County Firefighters, IAFF Local 2400.