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Arizona police, firefighters earn most overtime among public employees

Arizona Republic logo Arizona Republic 6/22/2019 Alison Steinbach
a group of people riding on the back of a truck© Provided by Gannett Co., Inc.

Hefty overtime payments can take a toll on government budgets. They also can signal departments are understaffed and leaning too hard on employees to work extra hours.  

A database of Arizona public employee pay for fiscal year 2018 assembled by The Republic shows police officers and firefighters are by far the biggest overtime earners.

State law — following the federal Fair Labor Standards Act — mandates employers pay non-exempt employees at least “time and a half” for work beyond 40 hours a week. Arizona does not limit overtime hours that can be worked in a day. 

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Police, firefighters earn the most overtime 

The top 25 overtime earners in The Republic database are all affiliated with police or fire departments.

More than half of the top 10 overtime earners — and 19 of the top 25 — work in the city of Phoenix's police and fire departments.

Public safety overtime is a trend in other large cities as well.

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In Baltimore, for example, seven of the 10 highest-paid city employees were police officers, largely due to overtime pay. And over the last five years, Los Angeles saw fire department overtime costs grow by 36%. 

OT doubles some salaries

Overtime dramatically increases some public employees' salaries.

For the 25 top overtime earners, it added between $70,000 and nearly $109,000 to their pay.

In some cases, it doubled public safety employees’ base salaries, which ranged from about $72,000 to $124,700. And 10 of the top 25 OT earners received more from overtime than their base salary.

One detective with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, for example, more than doubled his $75,608 base salary by earning $99,571 in overtime pay.

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Who earned the most overtime?  

The No. 1 overtime earner among Arizona public employees was a Phoenix police sergeant.

In fiscal year 2018, he more than doubled his base salary of $103,917 with overtime that totaled $108,884, raising his total salary to $212,801. As a result, the sergeant’s pay surpassed that of Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams, who earned $201,718.

Kate Gallego et al. posing for the camera: Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego talk to a woman who approached them before a public meeting on police issues at the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Phoenix, June 18, 2019.© Darryl Webb/Special for the Republic Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego talk to a woman who approached them before a public meeting on police issues at the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Phoenix, June 18, 2019.

According to Sgt. Tommy Thompson, spokesman for the Phoenix Police Department, that individual earned so much overtime because he worked for the “Special Assignments Unit or SWAT Team.”

Some officers “possess training and skill sets that only a few officers possess, which requires them to work additional hours,” Thompson said.  

Why do these workers earn so much OT?  

After the Great Recession, budget cuts forced Valley police and fire departments to slow or stop hiring.

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Phoenix police faced a “hiring freeze” from 2008 until 2015, Thompson wrote in an email. During that time, the number of sworn officers dropped from 3,388 to 2,677. The department hopes to have 3,125 officers within the next year, with the ultimate staffing goal of 3,650 sworn officers, Thompson wrote.

For the Phoenix Fire Department, employment numbers have remained relatively stable for the past 10 years, with 1,686 sworn members currently, a slight decrease from pre-2008 levels. But at the same time, service calls have increased each year, rising from 145,714 calls in 2009 to nearly 215,000 calls in 2018, according to Phoenix financial reports. This means the same number of employees have had to address an increasing number of problems.

Executive Assistant Chief Scott Walker said overtime is a “tool” the department uses to meet fluctuating needs, primarily to ensure fire trucks are always staffed with at least four firefighters. Hiring and training more members to eliminate overtime would not necessarily be cost effective for the taxpayer, he said, as the department would then be regularly overstaffed.

However, Bryan Willingham, fire captain and executive vice president of the Local 493 union that represents area firefighters, said overtime does take a toll on employees. Willingham said firefighters already work 53-hour weeks — 40% more than the average government employee — so adding overtime can further strain firefighters.  

“Our divorce rates statistically are higher, PTSD is on the rise, the sleep deprivation takes its toll in some ways that is immeasurable at this point, we know it’s getting worse,” he said.

a white bus parked in front of a building: A shooting occurred across the street from the Tolleson Police Department at a barbershop. Police were able to quickly respond and apprehend the teenage suspect.© Rocky Baier/The Republic A shooting occurred across the street from the Tolleson Police Department at a barbershop. Police were able to quickly respond and apprehend the teenage suspect.

Non-public safety employees earn lots of OT 

While public safety workers dominated the top overtime-earners list, a handful of other employees earned significant amounts as well:

  • A gas systems inspector in Mesa’s energy resources department was the top non-public safety OT earner. He received an annual salary of $73,965 and overtime pay of $64,603. Forty public safety employees earned more overtime than this inspector. 
  • A utility technician with Tucson’s water department earned $61,795 in overtime pay, nearly doubling his base salary of $63,134. He was the 55th highest OT earner, but the second-highest among non-public safety employees.
  • The next-highest non-public safety employee — an energy management employee at Arizona State University — ranked 92nd, adding $55,739 in overtime to his annual rate of $62,400.
  • Ranked 93rd for overtime was a geriatric nurse at the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services.   

Other than these four, however, the top 100 overtime earners were public safety and law enforcement employees.  

Which departments paid the most overtime?  

Here are the top department and agencies for total overtime costs:

  1. Arizona Department of Corrections: $42,343,457 
  2. Phoenix Police Department: $21,090,208 
  3. Phoenix Fire Department: $19,963,311 
  4. Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office: $14,318,416 
  5. Arizona Department of Public Safety: $9,260,694 

Other notable agencies for overtime costs include:  

  • Arizona Department of Transportation: $5,168,273 
  • Arizona Department of Economic Security: $4,756,925  
  • Arizona Department of Child Safety: $4,217,715 
  • Phoenix Water Services Department: $3,170,067 

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    This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona police, firefighters earn most overtime among public employees

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