Sig­nif­i­cant over­time pay spurs re­view in Fair­fax

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY JUSTIN JOUVENAL justin.jouvenal@wash­post.com

One Fair­fax County fire­fighter tripled his salary to more than $270,000 with over­time pay. A county po­lice of­fi­cer took home $175,000 — in the realm of the po­lice chief's an­nual salary — after work­ing ex­tra hours. A fire cap­tain pock­eted $163,000 in ad­di­tional com­pen­sa­tion, more than many of his col­leagues make in a year.

The eye-pop­ping fig­ures have prompted Fair­fax County su­per­vi­sors to re­view over­time pay and other com­pen­sa­tion for em­ploy­ees as the county faces a bud­get squeeze. Largely driven by over­time pay­outs to po­lice of­fi­cers, fire­fight­ers and sher­iff ’s deputies, more than 1,700 county em­ploy­ees who are not depart­ment heads earned more than $100,000 in 2016, ac­cord­ing to county fig­ures.

Su­per­vi­sor Pat Her­rity (RSpring­field) said there is no ev­i­dence that county em­ploy­ees are abus­ing the over­time sys­tem, but he has re­quested ad­di­tional de­tails from county of­fi­cials to determine whether changes need to be made to re­duce over­time pay. He also wants to know how the com­pen­sa­tion com­pares to other ju­ris­dic­tions in the area.

“I think it raises a lot of ques­tions,” Her­rity said. “With pub­lic safety there is al­ways go­ing to be some over­time, but $270,000 gross on a $90,000 yearly salary raises ques­tions. There are fis­cal ques­tions, man­age­ment ques­tions and safety ques­tions. I have con­cerns about some­one work­ing a 48-hour shift.”

Pub­lic safety unions and of­fi­cials strongly pushed back against the idea that over­time pay might be ex­ces­sive, say­ing that some em­ploy­ees must work ex­tra hours be­cause of staffing short­ages, others are put­ting in long hours dur­ing emer­gen­cies and others are work­ing for en­ti­ties that re­im­burse the county for the over­time.

Some were also ran­kled be­cause many pub­lic safety em­ploy­ees have en­dured pay freezes in re­cent years and earn far less than many res­i­dents in one of the na­tion’s most ex­pen­sive coun­ties.

“They are com­plain­ing about guys who are work­ing over­time try­ing to make the me­dian in­come for the ju­ris­dic­tion,” said Joseph Woloszyn, president of the Fair­fax County chap­ter of the Po­lice Benev­o­lent As­so­ci­a­tion. “That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Richard R. Bow­ers Jr., the Fair­fax County fire chief, said his depart­ment has been deal­ing with a chronic short­age of fire­fight­ers. Cur­rently, he said, the depart­ment has 56 va­can­cies, forc­ing some to work shifts as long as 48 hours or be re­called to work each day. The empty po­si­tions have not been funded by the county.

In ad­di­tion, Bow­ers said, a lot of over­time is ac­crued by the depart­ment’s renowned ur­ban search and res­cue team, which is reg­u­larly de­ployed over­seas by a fed­eral agency to re­spond to earth­quakes and other nat­u­ral dis­as­ters. In those cases, the fed­eral govern­ment re­im­burses the depart­ment.

He said that in­cludes part of the over­time earned by the fire­fighter who took home $270,000 last year.

“What it boils down to is if you want over­time money re­duced, you turn the over­time pay into full-time po­si­tions,” Bow­ers said. “We don’t force any­one to work a dou­ble shift. There are safety nets on the in­di­vid­u­als who do.”

Po­lice of­fi­cials said they also in­sti­tute mea­sures to en­sure that em­ployee over­time is kept in check and of­fi­cers aren’t over­worked, in­clud­ing min­i­mum rest pe­ri­ods be­tween shifts and caps on the to­tal hours worked each week.

“As a po­lice depart­ment, we’ve done a ter­rific job of man­ag­ing over­time,” Fair­fax Po­lice Chief Ed­win C. Roessler Jr. said.

A spokes­woman for the Fair­fax County Sher­iff’s Of­fice said that em­ployee over­time is reg­u­larly re­viewed. She said a re­cent ini­tia­tive to di­vert the men­tally ill from the jail has ne­ces­si­tated more over­time for train­ing and to drive de­tainees to men­tal hos­pi­tals out­side the area since beds are scarce.

The de­bate over over­time comes as the county passed a trim $4.1 bil­lion bud­get on Tues­day that left some pri­or­i­ties such as po­lice re­forms and salary in­creases for some county em­ploy­ees un­funded. The school sys­tem also got tens of mil­lions of dol­lars less than it asked for. Fair­fax has con­tended with fed­eral spend­ing cuts and a chal­leng­ing econ­omy in re­cent years that have left rev­enue flat.

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