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It's good to be a San Luis Obispo firefighter 

Overtime pay for SLO's blaze battlers is far more than any other such pay in the city

Ask any San Luis Obispo firefighters about the financial difficulties facing their city, and they’ll likely point out that police officers are the employees who received large raises and the only safety employees who have used binding arbitration.

This is true. But there’s more to the story.

Although SLO police officers are often labeled as the big money makers in the city workforce, they usually don’t make as much as the city’s firefighters. Not even close.

According to a report detailing all California city and county salaries for the 2009 calendar year, released by the State Controller, SLO firefighters not only make more than nearly all other city employees, but because of generous overtime rules, they also make more than any other type of government worker in the county.

Many city firefighters made more than $60,000 in overtime in 2009; that’s more than the beginning salary of a SLO firefighter. Six of the top earners in the city in 2009 were firefighters. If overtime is excluded, only two fire fighters make the top 20.

According to the Comptroller’s and SLO city documents, four fire captains boosted their pay from a base of $95,000 to around $170,000 with overtime. The other captains—there are 14—made less, but only two made less than $30,000 in overtime. Of the 16 fire engineers, only a handful make less than $40,000 in overtime. Three came close to making $160,000 total, almost double their $81,302 yearly salary.

This is in stark contrast to the pay situation at other city fire agencies in SLO County. Overtime for firefighters in Paso Robles in the 2009 calendar year rarely amounted to even half their beginning base pay of $51,048, and only a few fire captains managed to make $30,000 over their base pay. They also have substantially less generous pension benefits.

Only one of Atascadero’s seven fire captains made $30,000 more than base pay. Half of the fire engineers managed to boost their pay more than $20,000. In Arroyo Grande, only the three captains and one
engineer made more than $100,000 total.

In Santa Maria, a Santa Barbara County city twice as populous as SLO, overtime is far less, with few firefighters making more than $30,000 more than their base pay.

Overtime is part of the firefighter way of life, as is the work schedule unique to the profession. Along with 24-hour shifts, overtime is built into the system in San Luis Obispo. SLO firefighters, fire engineers, and fire captains are assigned to eight 24-hour shifts in a 24-day work period. That works out to 192 hours. According to their last contract with the city, firefighters, fire engineers, and fire captains are guaranteed 10 hours of overtime for every eight shifts: “Employees in these classifications who work more than one hundred eighty-two (182) hours during a pay cycle, shall be paid time and one-half (1 1/2) for all hours worked in excess of one hundred eighty-two (182) hours worked in the twenty-four day pay cycle.”

Still, this doesn’t explain the enormous amount of overtime seen in the 2009 pay records. Perhaps 2009 saw a rough fire season? It wasn’t.

There were about half as many fires.

Most of the city’s overtime costs in the 2009 calendar year came from the fire department. The city spent $2,548,839.97 for overtime payments, $1,766,458.71 of which came from the fire department. The nearest runner up in overtime costs was the police department at $621,647.22. 

There’s another reason for all the overtime: The city designed it that way.

According to city documents and fire officials, the fire department is scheduled to have 14 fire personnel on duty—including a battalion chief—at all times.

If a firefighter can’t work a shift, another firefighter must replace him or her and is paid overtime for that entire shift.

The city claims it’s too expensive to hire more firefighters to fill the gap.

“Because of the benefits and pension obligations [of hiring additional workers], it worked out to be cheaper to use overtime to stretch out the people we have,” said a city worker who preferred not to have his name used. The city claims a nine percent cost savings over hiring additional firefighters.

SLO started a hiring freeze in 2008 and, according to a city report, there are five positions that haven’t been filled. That creates more opportunity for overtime.

Some of the overtime isn’t paid by the city; when city firefighters are called to work outside the city, those outside jurisdictions pay SLO the overtime costs, and the city actually makes a profit from the practice. The city was reimbursed $656,156 in fiscal year 2009-2010.

The city is currently examining overtime practices in an effort to reduce the budget.

“As you can imagine, staff has been and is attentive to managing all costs incurred by the City [including overtime]” Katie Lichtig, SLO city manager, said in an e-mail. “This refinement of the city’s policy is just another example of staff’s proactive attention to managing all city resources in an active and prudent manner.”

The firefighters union did not return phone calls.

Contact Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald at rmcdonald@newtimesslo.com.

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