But department still busts OT budget by $1 million
D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe has chopped overtime expenses by more than half in less than a year into his tenure, but the department still went $1 million over budget in the fiscal year that just ended, and dozens of firefighters say they still are owed overtime pay.
Ellerbe in January took over Fire and Emergency Medical Services, a department with a history of overtime being abused and going notoriously over budget. But overtime pay fell to $5 million in the 2011 fiscal year, which ended Friday.
That's a nearly 60 percent drop from nearly $12 million spent in 2010 and "at minimum a 45 percent reduction in spending compared to any year in the last decade," Ellerbe said at a hearing Wednesday before the D.C. Council's Judiciary Committee.
However, overtime pay was budgeted at $4 million for 2011. The overall budget for FEMS was $196.6 million.
The firefighters union also says there are 176 outstanding grievances against the department, some of which include overtime pay not received. For firefighters, overtime pay doesn't become time-and-a-half pay until a worker has logged more than 204 hours during a four-week pay cycle, a rule based on a federal law, said union President Ed Smith.
Earlier this year, the council passed a law limiting firefighters' overtime pay to $20,000 annually as a way to keep within those limitations. Smith said the overtime management software assigns firefighters extra hours based on availability but doesn't track their total hours during the cycle, which still leaves the accounting up to the employee.
And, he told committee chairman Phil Mendelson, the limitations are sometimes ignored by superiors.
"You're telling me the battalion chief is saying 'I don't care?' " Councilman Mendelson asked.
"There have been instances where members have been asked to work above the ceiling due to the needs of the department," Smith answered.
Meanwhile Ellerbe outlined his proposal to switch to 12-hour shifts from 24-hour shifts. The proposal essentially would have firefighters working shorter shifts, but more often, reducing the need for overtime shifts.
The department would have to renegotiate the
collective bargaining agreement with the union to implement any schedule and pay changes. Smith said the two sides plan on discussing the proposal and there is no deadline for reaching a new agreement.
Without the changes it would be impossible to slash overtime down to the council's $2.9 million allotment for this fiscal year without cutting service, Ellerbe said.
If the changes did happen, Smith said, "the morale of the department would just be decimated."