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Column: A wrecked economy for many, but a bonanza of overtime pay for L.A. firefighters at virus test sites

Coronavirus testing at Dodger Stadium
Coronavirus testing at Dodger Stadium.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The coronavirus has battered the economy and cost many people their jobs, but for dozens of Los Angeles Fire Department employees assigned to COVID-19 test sites, the pandemic has delivered a bonanza in overtime pay.

“There are guys making more in a month than a teacher makes in a year,” said an LAFD official who questioned the exorbitant payouts at a time when Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has taken bows for providing free COVID testing at several city locations, has told top city managers to prepare for possible layoffs and other cost cutting.

“The numbers are shocking,” said the official, who reached out to me but requested anonymity. He directed me to city records showing that numerous LAFD personnel have repeatedly been credited with 10, 16 and even 24 hours a day of overtime since they started pulling COVID duty shifts, even though test sites are generally open only from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Of course we all appreciate the heroic work of firefighters who routinely risk their lives, especially when half of California is in flames, and a lot of them aren’t pulling any COVID duty. Also, the payroll records don’t show whether all the overtime paid out to the firefighters the source named was for COVID work. But in my cruise through city payroll records, I found staggering payouts to LAFD personnel whose primary role when they work at testing sites is to open the facilities, close them, deliver results to a lab, replenish supplies and keep tabs on the equipment.

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LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas acknowledged in an interview that the COVID overtime payouts totaled more than $7 million in the first half of this year, and estimated the total could now be as high as $14 million. As for the first $7 million, he said about 75% of that was reimbursed by the federal government. He lauded his department’s role in the testing and defended the overtime costs as a valuable public service.

But the chief also told me he is now conducting his own internal audit based on the whistleblower allegations and my questions about them.

I got tested at the Dodger Stadium site last week, and it was hard to see why paramedic and emergency training would be necessary for any of the workers at the test sites. It’s not like firefighters administer the tests. You pull in, someone hands you a test kit, you run a swab through your mouth, dump the kit into a barrel and drive away.

Do we really need some of the city’s highest paid and specially trained employees to do that work, often at time-and-a-half pay, in the middle of a fiscal emergency in which thousands of city employees are being furloughed and tens of thousands of civilians have lost their jobs?

According to city payroll documents, two fire captains identified by the source as working a lot of COVID shifts each made more than $200,000, in overtime pay alone, between March 28 and Sept. 12. There’s no breakdown as to how much of that overtime pay was for COVID duty, but I did see duty sheet records showing that the two men have frequently worked test sites.

In a single month, ending Sept. 12, one assistant fire chief who does a lot of COVID duty raked in more than $70,000 in overtime pay, according to the payroll records, or just above the median annual household income in L.A. County.

I checked payroll records for 25 LAFD employees who frequently were assigned to COVID testing duty, and found a total overtime payout to them of nearly $2.7 million since late March, for an average of more than $100,000 apiece. And they all earned their regular pay on top of that.

None of this sat well with one LAFD civilian employee, who dug through records and estimated that the COVID duty overtime payout was up to $12 million. The employee wrote a whistleblower letter challenging the legitimacy of some overtime claims, and noting that civilian LAFD employees face furloughs in the midst of the cash haul by their firefighting colleagues, who already make a lot more in salary.

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“Many people are getting paid for hours they could not possibly be working because I see them leave for the day but the overtime is still entered in the computer as hours worked. The hours are not documented anywhere, it’s the total honor system, but without any honor or integrity at all,” the whistleblower wrote in the letter, which was shared with me, and which I was given permission to show to City Controller Ron Galperin.

Galperin was concerned enough by what was in the letter to launch an audit.

“This is troubling and it’s disturbing, but it’s not surprising,” said Galperin. He ripped city officials for not acting on his overtime reform recommendations last November, when an audit by the city controller revealed that $470 million in overtime was paid across all city departments in the year ending in June 2019. At the top of that list, with $192 million in overtime payouts, was the city fire department.

In perusing city records, I found numerous instances in which firefighters were paid for as much as 200, 300 and even 400 hours in overtime for single two-week pay periods. That’s partly because the department allows employees to gather overtime credits and then cash them in later, but it’s also because so much overtime is available.

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My source told me firefighters often bank overtime credits until they get a raise or a promotion, and then redeem them when their value is higher. Regardless of the details, employees often double their salaries with overtime payments.

“It’s not just a question of money,” said Galperin. “It’s also really unhealthy, it’s unsafe and unwise to be working that many hours.”

I forwarded questions about all of this to Mayor Garcetti and got a written response from Deputy Mayor Jeff Gorell, which said in part that firefighters have been working “around the clock” on Garcetti’s “nation leading” program, and 1.5 million Angelenos have been tested so far.

“We know this work takes an extraordinary amount of resources,” Gorell said.

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Terrazas said the majority of firefighters assigned to test sites ordinarily have desk jobs, so of the 60 or so on COVID testing each day, only about 10 are being pulled from station duty.

He said that while the majority of workers at test sites are civilians who work for a nonprofit co-founded by actor Sean Penn, firefighters are responsible for setting up the facilities, transporting and maintaining supplies and delivering tests to laboratories, all of which begins before test sites open and continues long after they’re closed.

Supervisors monitor overtime, the chief said, and assistant fire chief Ellsworth Fortman manages COVID testing.

Since March, according to payroll records, Fortman has logged 780 hours of OT, at a rate of $80 an hour, for a total of of $62,442.58.

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Fortman defended the extra pay, saying that while overtime hours for him and others may be high, testing involves a massive daily undertaking, with firefighters working at six drive-through sites and three walk-in sites, and testing employees from various agencies, including LAX, the ports, and recreation and parks.

“We run testing six days a week and sometimes Sundays, along with mobile testing depending on the need,” Fortman said. “It’s a huge commitment and the overtime hours may be high … but I’m proud of what our people are doing.”

But I wonder, still, if we need firefighters on this assignment, often at time and a half, when so many others are struggling to survive and hungry for work. And I wonder if equipment needs to be hauled all over the city every day rather than have civilians drop by local fire stations or other public facilities for tests.

“These are firefighters,” my source in the fire department said. “We should have shut down testing for a week and sent them all up to help out with the Bobcat fire. It’s in our backyard.”

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Steve.lopez@latimes.com


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