More than 230 firefighters in Kansas City, Kan., were paid $920,000 in 2017 for time they did not work, according to a new study.
The payments were the result of a practice called shift-trading, an option common in the fire service.
Outgoing Unified Government Mayor Mark Holland is rightly upset. “This is a complete abuse of taxpayer dollars,” he told The Star.
Holland is hardly a disinterested observer. He likely lost his race for re-election because of an ongoing argument with the firefighters’ union, and the new report may be another chapter in that story.
But just because Holland may have a political motive for the criticism doesn’t make him wrong. Residents in Kansas City, Kan., should be concerned about the potential waste of their taxes and a potential threat to their safety.
They should not be surprised, however. Similar stories have popped up from time to time in many major U.S. cities. Kansas City, Mo., worked through its own shift-trading controversy in 1992.
In each case, the scenario is the roughly the same: Firefighters use existing shift-trading rules to get extra days off for family reasons, health issues or business pursuits. Federal labor rules permit such trades.
When the system is properly regulated, no harm is done. Firefighter Johnson takes firefighter Baker’s shift, and Baker returns the favor later. Both are paid as if the trade never took place.
When officials fail to keep a close eye on the process, though, the trades are never evened out, and a firefighter gets paid for time he or she didn’t work.
The problem grows if a worker trades more shifts than rules allow or pays someone under the table to work an extra shift. Firefighters taking those additional shifts can face long hours of duty, leading to fatigue and a threat to public safety.
Firefighter unions have fiercely defended shift-trading as a morale booster and a way to even out manpower demands. The head of the fire union in Kansas City, Kan., says shift-trading is routine across the nation and allowed under the existing agreement with the Unified Government.
No agreement, however, should allow firefighters to be paid for weeks or months without working a shift. That appears to be what’s happening here.
Cities aren’t powerless. The next time work agreements are negotiated, the Unified Government (and others) may want to consider moving away from the 24-hour on-duty schedule now in place.
A more regular schedule would allow firefighters more time at home. It would allow cities to keep a closer eye on shift-trading and could ease concerns about overworking some employees.
That might mean more firefighters, too. But they would be better rested and ready to protect public safety. Overtime costs would come down.
Many firefighters who hold second jobs would see such a schedule as punitive. But those who have abused their right to trade shifts may leave elected officials with no choice but to make the process more difficult.
No one doubts the courage and hard work of area firefighters. But dedication to duty can’t be an excuse for avoiding reasonable workplace regulations, a lesson fire unions should take to heart.