COVID-19 Has Cost the Los Angeles Fire Department $22.5 Million in Overtime

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Kevin Rector

Los Angeles Times

(MCT)

The Los Angeles Fire Department has spent more than $22.5 million on overtime related to COVID-19, much of it to backfill the shifts of employees who fell ill or had to quarantine after an exposure to the virus, data reviewed by The Times show.

The numbers underscore the toll that the coronavirus is taking on Fire Department staffing amid a battle over the city mandate that employees receive vaccinations. Only about 70% of LAFD workers have been fully vaccinated, and some firefighters and union officials have warned of major staffing problems if large numbers of personnel refuse to comply with the mandate.

But the data, which The Times obtained under the California Public Records Act, show the lost time due to COVID-19 illness is already substantial, accounting for more than 400,000 hours of work completed between March 2020 and Oct. 9 of this year.

While firefighters and their union have sued over the mandate and warned of slowed response times if it is implemented in full, far less has been said about these ever-growing costs of an undervaccinated workforce — which medical experts and ethicists said is a mistake.

“One of the things we ignore is, what’s the burden of people being sick and being out? That doesn’t seem to be tabulated or at least expressed clearly in all of the discussions about city workers refusing to be vaccinated,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. “Not only are they burdening us with the threat of spreading disease, but selfishly they are burdening the taxpayer with the cost of having to fill in for them.”

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Dr. John Swartzberg, a clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health who has long taught on infectious disease and vaccine hesitancy, said national and international corporations he has advised through the pandemic have already reached the conclusion that vaccination mandates are not only good public policy but good for business — specifically because they reduce the costs associated with managing quarantines and paying for overtime.

The same reasoning applies to public agencies, he said.

“It’s going to allow them to have a stable workforce, and that stable workforce is created in part because you won’t have so many people going out on quarantine, and far fewer people going out ill,” Swartzberg said.

Cecile Aguirre, a fiscal systems specialist with the Fire Department who helped compile the data, said the numbers captured all overtime costs filed under a budget category for “COVID-19 activity.” While the figures could include some overtime worked by LAFD members at testing or vaccination sites, they largely represented hours worked by members who were filling in for others who had fallen ill with COVID-19 or were exposed to it and quarantining, Aguirre said.

She said she could not provide a more precise breakdown given limitations of the department’s financial tracking software.

The Fire Department said in a statement that it has had to increase overtime hours in light of demands associated with the coronavirus, and is keeping track of such expenses in order to seek federal reimbursement where possible.

The department said what effect the vaccine mandate will have on staffing is “still undetermined,” but if it “creates an unusually high number of vacancies,” the department would consider temporarily closing individual fire companies.

The department did not address the staffing gains it might experience from a vaccinated workforce, and directed other questions to Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office.

Harrison Wollman, a spokesman for Garcetti, said in a statement that the mandate “is in place to protect the health and safety of our workforce and the Angelenos they serve — so that we can continue to move closer to the end of this pandemic, keep our employees on the job, and get our City back to full strength as quickly as possible.”

City officials have previously raised concerns about the Fire Department’s overtime spending amid the pandemic, with L.A. Controller Ron Galperin noting in an August report that the LAFD had spent $14 million on overtime staffing at testing sites — of $236 million in total overtime in 2020 — without “adequate timekeeping processes in place at testing sites or for pandemic response activities in general.”

The spending to backfill sick and quarantining personnel represents additional costs that have not previously been reported, providing new insight into the substantial toll that COVID-19 has had on the department — and the taxpayers who fund it.

The figures show overtime paid out to cover shifts in divisions across the department. Individual employees’ names were redacted from the data, but not their job classifications: firefighters, captains, fire apparatus operators and engineers.

The cost per hour of overtime varied depending on the classification of the employee working the shift. For some firefighters, it was less than $33 an hour. For a captain, it was $82 an hour. For a battalion chief, it was more than $108 an hour.

The toll the virus has taken on the city’s public safety workforce — including fire and police department personnel — has been a major concern of city officials and department commanders, and part of the reason why a vaccination mandate was implemented.

City officials have said COVID-19 does not only threaten individual employees’ health and safety, but the public at large — including by depleting the workforces and resources of public safety agencies. They’ve said the vaccine mandate is meant to help address both threats.

However, that message hasn’t been included in recent discussions about public safety manpower.

Last week, United Firefighters of Los Angeles City Local 112 President Freddy Escobar held a news conference outside the union’s Westlake headquarters to warn about what he said would be a “devastating impact on public safety” if the city went ahead with plans to terminate firefighters who refuse to comply with the mandate rules.

Notices have been going out in recent days to unvaccinated city employees informing them that they must submit to and pay for coronavirus testing and be vaccinated by Dec. 18 as a condition of employment unless they receive a medical or religious exemption.

Escobar said the Fire Department is already facing staffing shortages, and that ambulances and firetrucks can’t operate without appropriate staffing levels.

“We have a staffing crisis now. And we simply can’t afford it to get worse,” Escobar said.

Escobar did not mention the staffing shortages posed by the virus itself or how they might continue at a more elevated rate if a large portion of the department remains unvaccinated.

Escobar did not respond to a request for comment on the overtime data.

On Monday, the union filed a lawsuit over the rollout of the mandate, arguing the city engaged in “bad faith bargaining” over the terms and saying that “it belies logic that the LAFD will be able to properly provide emergency, and oftentimes lifesaving, assistance to the community when it depletes an already depleted fire department” by terminating unvaccinated employees.

The union that represents police officers has also filed a lawsuit over the rollout of the mandate, and individual officers and firefighters have filed their own lawsuits, as well.

The Times requested similar overtime data from the Los Angeles Police Department, but it said it didn’t have any such data because it hasn’t been backfilling positions left vacant by officers out sick with COVID-19 or in quarantine.

“Because we don’t backfill those positions, overtime is not paid so there is no overtime to track,” said Capt. Stacy Spell, an LAPD spokesman.

The virus, however, has taken a heavy toll on Los Angeles Police Department staffing.

Thousands of officers have been sickened and sidelined by the virus. For much of the last two years, more than 100 LAPD employees have been out sick or quarantining at any given time.

Without those positions being filled, that meant hundreds of fewer police officers working in L.A. at a time when violent crime was spiking and homicides were hitting a decade high.

Caplan, of NYU, said he is “ethically outraged” by public safety officials who refuse to be vaccinated despite the fact that “the data keeps pouring in that there is nothing dangerous about vaccination” and despite the fact that even young children are beginning to get vaccinated as part of the broader societal effort to end the pandemic.

“Not doing what 7-year-olds are starting to do, which is to get vaccinated, strikes me as morally incomprehensible,” he said.

When that resistance also costs taxpayers money, it’s even more wrong, Caplan said.

“Not only are the firefighters literally being selfish, they are just incomprehensibly requiring the city to scramble to cover the cost of their obstinance,” he said.

Times staff writer Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this article.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

©2021 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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