Officials address overtime in Fire Department

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published February 19, 2021

 Overtime wages soared for some Warren firefighters in 2020. Officials said it was the result of vacant positions and operational changes implemented to ensure the department could continue to function during the pandemic at contractually obligated levels.

Overtime wages soared for some Warren firefighters in 2020. Officials said it was the result of vacant positions and operational changes implemented to ensure the department could continue to function during the pandemic at contractually obligated levels.

Photo by Brian Louwers

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WARREN — Overtime pay put a group of firefighters among the city of Warren’s top earners in 2020.

Administration officials said annual wages that “approached or exceeded $200,000” in some cases were the result of vacant positions and restructured deployments, implemented to ensure the continued operation of emergency services during the coronavirus pandemic with staffing at contractually obligated levels.

“It is unusual. It’s very much unusual, because it’s just a combination of us being 17 people short and a pandemic year,” Warren Fire Commissioner Skip McAdams said on Feb. 12.

McAdams said contact tracing early during the COVID-19 outbreak led to the temporary loss of up to an additional 15 firefighters as a precautionary measure on at least three separate occasions, although no more than two to three ever tested positive at once.

“But when you’re exposed, I couldn’t take chances with those employees,” McAdams said.

To help mitigate the potential spread of the virus through the department and to ensure the continued ability to operate as needed, McAdams said he split the department into three separate divisions “to minimize the possibility of a single COVID exposure spreading throughout the department by employee-to-employee contact.” He said the department also added more EMS crews as COVID-19 cases spiked in the city, to spread out the workload and to compensate for additional crew out-of-service times as a result of the decontamination process.

In a memo sent to Warren Mayor Jim Fouts, McAdams said Fire Department employees worked a total of 43,005 hours of overtime at a rate of time and a half of each employee’s hourly rate. That translates to an average of 380.57 hours of overtime for each employee, or roughly 16 24-hour shifts each.

“Unfortunately, some employees turned down overtime allowing other employees to work more overtime which increased their overtime wages for the year,” McAdams said in the memo.

He indicated that 2020 records show 12 employees accepted more than 1,000 hours of overtime, or nearly 42 24-hour shifts, and that two more employees accepted over 2,000 hours of overtime, or 84 24-hour shifts.

The memo was written in response to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by another entity. The story was first reported by Michigan Capitol Confidential, which, according to its website, “reports with a free-market news perspective” and is self-described as a “news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.”

“I couldn’t fail,” McAdams said. “If I have nobody to provide a response, I have failed. Everything else was predicated on ensuring that we could get through the crisis, and it worked.”

A total of 11 Fire Department employees reportedly doubled or nearly doubled their base salary for the year. According to the budget, the base annual salary for a Warren firefighter ranges from $77,564 for a firefighter to $113,564 for a battalion chief.

The staffing level, according to McAdams, was at 113 out of a budgeted 130. While the city spent less on regular wages in the department as a result, the department’s overtime budget of $650,000 had been exceeded by $1,183,531 through 17 biweekly pay periods over the current fiscal year.

Warren City Council President Pat Green said money could be transferred later from the department’s budget for unpaid regular wages but that the accumulated overtime underscores the importance of hiring firefighters to replace those who have left or retired.

“You’re always going to have overtime, but at some point, a significant amount of overtime, there’s a point where there’s too much and you don’t have enough people,” Green said. “You’re always going to be down 10 people, but now this is turning into 20. People can’t work that much overtime.”

Green said the City Council supported the hiring of additional firefighters and police officers, but city administrators said hiring efforts were hampered by the coronavirus, which shut down the flow of prospective candidates from fire academies and limited the city’s ability to do face-to-face testing.

“We’ve been pretty hard on the Human Resources Department, and we don’t see a thing changing,” Green said. “We want to get more people hired, and we want our Fire Department to be safe. We want them to deliver these services to the residents.”  

Another issue is the potential long-term costs for the city as a result of annual compensation inflated by an incredible amount of overtime, which could drastically increase the calculated pensions for some employees. McAdams said that could be “fairly costly.”

Green said the City Council would seek clarification through an actuary about the potential impact on retirement benefits.  

Warren City Treasurer Lorie Barnwell, who sits on the Police and Fire Retirement Pension Board, said she requested a report about the increased overtime and that she would present its findings to city administrators and the Warren City Council.

“I have warned from the beginning that too much overtime costs from understaffing could be a strain to our Police and Fire Retirement System,” Barnwell said in a Facebook post on Feb. 12.

She said new hires had been requested for two years and that a lack of proper personnel would have consequences, including the potential need for additional funds in the pension system.

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