Charleston creates overtime incentive in response to extra hours worked to bolster staffing of fire trucks

Under an unusual pay system that resulted from a 1990s lawsuit, Charleston firefighters earn about half their regular pay when they work overtime, rather than earning more.

That's about to change, as the city responds to recommendations from a panel that reviewed the Fire Department in the wake of the Sofa Super Store blaze that killed nine firefighters in June.

The panel's recommendations included staffing each fire truck with four firefighters and revising overtime policies.

The city has been relying heavily upon overtime shifts to beef up the staffing of fire stations, and starting today, city firefighters will earn at least $376 when they work an extra 24-hour shift.

That's at least $270 more than under the current system.

The Charleston Firefighters Association has been urging the city to adopt a system of paying overtime at a rate of one-and-a-half times regular pay, but the city says such a system would be unworkable because of a complex pay agreement that settled a 1997 lawsuit over firefighter wage claims.

Under the settlement, firefighters earn a set salary for working up to 120 hours during a two-week pay period, typically working either four or five 24-hour shifts.

Federal law requires overtime for shift work beyond 106 hours, so the settlement said that, in addition to salary, the firefighters would get half-pay for any hours worked beyond 106.

Charleston firefighters typically work 120 hours, or five 24-hour shifts, during two out of every three pay periods. That means 14 hours of overtime pay would be common during a regular shift and costly if the city started paying time-and-a-half for all overtime hours.

The incentive pay concept was created as a way to pay firefighters the equivalent of time-and-a-half for additional overtime, without increasing pay for the regular hours they already are scheduled to work.

"On average, you are getting more than you would get, over a three-shift period, than at time-and-a-half," said Steve Bedard, the city's chief financial officer.

The new pay policy was to be posted at city fire stations Friday, and takes effect today.

"We were hoping the city would pay actual time-and-a-half, the way most cities do," said Roger Yow, president of the Charleston Firefighters Association.

Bedard said the city's new incentive plan will also have the effect of slightly increasing the half-time pay rate for firefighters who work overtime. Under the current system, the pay rate decreases as firefighters works more overtime, because the rate is figured by dividing salary by hours worked and then dividing by two.

Yow, a retired city firefighter, said overtime shifts were previously uncommon, so the pay system hadn't been a big issue until this fall.

"In my 25 years, I think I was called back for overtime three times," Yow said.

Yow said that with the push to increase staffing at fire stations, some firefighters are now owed as many as 18 days off, because they agreed to work for compensatory time.

With the new incentive plan, the city will tell firefighters today that they can no longer work for comp time, and they can now trade as many as three accumulated comp days for cash.

Bedard said the city's 2008 budget includes about $200,000 for firefighter overtime costs, though he expects the actual amount to be lower. He said the need for overtime shifts, and overtime pay, will decrease as the city hires additional firefighters.