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Calif. Fire Department Struggles with Overtime Pay Issues

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July 28—The Menlo Park Fire Protection District has an overtime problem.

The district has two firefighters who last year received more in overtime pay than regular pay. And in the same year, three firefighters made more than the fire chief, two battalion chiefs, a deputy fire chief and division chief of operations, who do not get overtime, according to district records.

Engineer-paramedic Michael Lamb was the district's second-highest paid employee last year, getting $137,193 in regular pay and $151,516 in overtime. His total pay including benefits for the year was $368,745. Only Battalion Chief Ben Marra, at $387,799, made more, including $127,267 in "other pay."

Engineer-paramedic Matthew Menard pulled in the third-highest amount, $137,465 in salary and $158,457 in overtime for a total of $364,118.

Fire board Director Chuck Bernstein said overtime pay currently averages half of firefighters' compensation.

"The overtime issue is getting worse," Bernstein said. "We were told when we hired firefighters that would go down, but it has gone up."

Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman disagrees, saying that overtime pay is down 39 percent in the past three months (3,957 hours) from the three-month period that ended in December (6,472 hours). He attributes the decrease to hiring 18 firefighters in the past year, 12 of them in new positions. The district also plans to add six more firefighters in the fall.

Schapelhouman said overtime remains an issue because even with the new hires, the district is still short of the 93 approved firefighters positions. He said four firefighters are on extended workers' compensation leave and firefighters must "backfill" when someone is sick or on temporary leave. Plus, firefighters are continuing to retire or leave the district.

There are 29 firefighters needed for each of three 48-hour shifts during the week, Schapelhouman said, for a total of 87 firefighters. When all 93 positions are staffed, overtime would rarely be needed because two firefighters could fill vacancies on each shift. All firefighters and some officers work 56-hour weekly schedules, which entitles them to 3.17 hours of mandatory overtime, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Schapelhouman called the hiring process and overtime pay a "balancing act." He said the district could more quickly get to 93 by continuing to hire, but it doesn't want to end up with too many firefighters—forcing it to pay benefits and pension—or "overwhelm" existing firefighters. The 18 new hires are on probation during their first year while being trained on the job by their peers.

"We can't overwhelm these guys with too many hires or we affect our day-to-day operation," he said.

The district paid out $3,571,646 in overtime to employees in 2015-16, and estimates overtime pay in 2016-17 at $4,112,778, which would be a 15 percent increase.

Schapelhouman said the 2016-17 figure doesn't yet factor in roughly $660,000 in overtime pay reimbursed by state, regional and national agencies for 13 deployments made out of its coverage area last year. That figure would put overtime pay roughly $120,000 lower than the previous year.

At $146,075, including overtime, Menlo Fire Protection's average pay in 2015 topped those of all other special districts in California. Its average pay also was second among all government agencies in the state, according to the State Controller's Office's Government Compensation in California website.

Schapelhouman said that figure is skewed. He said the district is the smallest agency to sponsor an urban search and rescue team in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It also houses a Swift Water Rescue team, one of 13 in the state through the Governor's Office of Emergency Services. Those teams are staffed using overtime pay, which is eventually reimbursed by the parent agencies, he said.

The fire board at its July 18 meeting approved a new captain of training position as a two-year experiment. The aim is to centralize training for probationary firefighters under one officer.

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