New policy to impact firefighters
Officials may rescind action due to reduction of benefits

COVINGTON - A new personnel policy affecting firefighter benefits may be reconsidered by the city due to complaints, according to the personnel director.

The new policy reduces holiday time, overtime and compensatory time firefighters receive.

City officials say it was needed to reduce overtime costs and maintain adequate staffing. But at least two employees at the Covington Fire Department, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the changes are detrimental, resulting in less pay and less time with their families.

"I feel the new policy is unjust because of the fact that it's taking away the time given to us in our benefit package when we were hired," said one employee.

A firefighter's work schedule and pay period may be foreign to those who work a regular, 40-hour week.

Firefighters work a 24-hour shift, then get 48 hours off. Firefighters at the Covington Fire Department can work either 96 hours or 120 hours every two weeks. To simplify things for payroll purposes, they are paid for 112 hours every two weeks, regardless of how many hours they work.

Of the 112 hours, 106 hours are paid at regular salary with the remaining six paid at overtime rate.

Firefighters hired prior to 1999 had the option of taking the six hours of overtime or taking three hours in overtime and three hours in compensatory time. The three hours of compensatory time amount to an extra five days off per year. Currently, 14 firefighters receive this benefit. The 34 firefighters hired after 1999 were not given the comp time option.

While comp time was previously automatic for those who elected the option, under the new policy, firefighters must accrue the time off based on hours worked. A full 159 hours must be worked over a 21-day period to accrue comp time or get overtime.

If an employee is out for one sick day or vacation day during the 21-day period, no overtime or comp time can be earned for that period.

Holiday time and sick leave have also been affected.

Firefighters working on a city holiday previously were paid a regular salary and were allowed to take a 24-hour shift off at another time. Those who were not scheduled to work on a holiday, however, also got an additional 24-hour shift off.

The new policy requires that those who work on holidays receive either 12 hours overtime or 12 hours of compensatory time.

Those who are not scheduled to work on the holiday will earn their regular salary for that day and will not get an extra day off.

The amount of sick leave the firefighters can accrue per month has been reduced from 14 hours to 12 hours.

The changes were made in part to keep staffing at needed level during touchy economic times, when many city positions are not being filled, Personnel Director Ronnie Cowan said.

Firefighters were given more time off in years past because they were paid a less than sufficient salary, Cowan said.

"More time was added to them compared to other city employees. It appears time was added in lieu of money. Since that time, we have tried to do a good job bringing all people up to market rates. ... For firefighters, the last few years, we don't have the staffing on the shifts we need. We looked at how other cities are doing it, and we decided to reduce some of the time off firefighters had," Cowan said.

Currently, firefighters who elected the comp time option have between 16 and 25 additional shifts off per year, including sick, holiday and vacation time, he said.

"When a firefighter takes a day off, he's gone a week," due to the 24-on, 48-off schedule, he said.

"The Fair Labor Standards Act allows us to give compensation in terms of pay or time off. Now we're electing to pay them to have more people on shift," he added.

Cowan said many of the complaints he's heard are from firefighters with second jobs who are worried they won't be able to keep their work schedule intact.

However, one fire department employee said the real concern is not having as much time off to spend with families and losing overtime pay.

"What they're doing is legal, but it's not morally right," the employee said.

The employee said there has long been grumbling by those in other departments related to time off for firefighters, largely stemming from ignorance about how their work and pay structures are set up.

While a person with a 40-hour per week job works 2,080 hours per year, firefighters work at least 2,912 hours per year, a more than 800-hour difference, and they are on-call even when not technically on the job, the employee said.

"You can't compare the two across the board. A firefighter spends one-third of his life away from his family. He spends one-third of his life on the job," the source said.

The source said there would be little to complain about if the changes were made to all departments, but, "We're being targeted and singled out. We feel like we're being stepped on and kicked."

However, City Manager Steve Horton said all city departments have been asked to reduce overtime.

Overtime for public safety employees totaled $322,000 in 2007, he said.

In addition, cutting comp time relieves the burden of covering the void when someone is off, and employees are still being compensated, he said.

Base salaries for firefighters have not been cut, he said, adding that, "None of us should base our livelihood on overtime."

The new policy is set to go into effect in July.

Cowan said due to the many complaints from firefighters, the policy may be revisited.

He said he has offered firefighters the chance to come up with their own solution to reduce overtime and keep staffing levels sufficient while not costing the city additional money.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.