Government & Politics

KCK firefighters were paid nearly $1 million for shifts they didn’t work

A Kansas City, Kan., firefighter battles a blaze from an aerial ladder truck.
A Kansas City, Kan., firefighter battles a blaze from an aerial ladder truck.

Firefighters of the Kansas City, Kan., Fire Department were paid $920,000 for work they didn’t do in 2017 because of a practice known as shift trading, a payroll analysis by the Unified Government has found.

The shift trading, the report said, also posed safety risks from fatigued firefighters.

UG Mayor Mark Holland called the report evidence of “widespread corruption.”

“This is a complete abuse of taxpayer dollars,” Holland said. “I think the whole city should be outraged at the abuse of taxpayer resources by the fire department.”

Shift trading is common in fire departments, where firefighters often work 24-hour shifts. In most circumstances, firefighters who want to trade a shift must do so with someone of the same rank, and they are expected to reciprocate. They are also limited on how many shifts they can trade in a year.

Firefighters trading shifts away are paid as though they did work the shift. If trades are reciprocated, pay to the firefighters evens out. If the trade is not traded back, then one firefighter is paid for a shift worked by another.

The UG analysis, obtained by The Star, shows that several KCK Fire Department firefighters traded away large numbers of shifts without trading them back. The department has 391 firefighters.

It named firefighters that it calls the “top 25 traders” who received 25 to 52 weeks of paid time off in 2017 as a result of trading shifts. Of those, 15 exceeded the limit of 24 traded shifts in a year.

Firefighters are normally scheduled to work 121 shifts a year, split up by 24 hours working a shift followed by 48 hours off. Shift trading is regulated by a labor agreement between the UG and the union for the firefighters.

The contract between the UG and the fire union says any number of trades above 24 in a year is considered abuse, with exceptions for duty-related education and “legitimate” union business.

One fire department captain last year received 52 weeks of paid time off and made nearly $65,000, according to the UG’s study.

However, the captain is a top official for the firefighter’s union. He said the record “reveals no abuse as written to and agreed to by” the union and the UG.

James Letcher, a public information officer for the KCK Fire Department, did not respond specifically to questions from The Star. He said that Kevin Shirley had been named interim fire chief, taking over for John Paul Jones who retired in December.

“As part of his duties, he will evaluate all operations of the Kansas City Kansas Fire Department over the coming months while he is in office,” Letcher said.

In addition to firefighters who traded away large numbers of shifts without trading them back, the report listed several who accepted more shifts than they traded away. It said those firefighters received what it called “under-the-table pay” as compensation.

One firefighter, the report said, took in an estimated $33,350 for accepting additional shifts.

“There’s a whole black market of shifts being taken under the table,” Holland said.

Because of the shift trading, the report said, rank and file firefighters had to work as captains during their shifts. And some firefighters worked several shifts in a row without rest, leading to potential workplace safety issues.

The report raises several other issues, such as the UG’s liability in a wrongful death lawsuit involving an incident with a fire truck staffed with un-rested personnel, and whether the IRS knows about the alleged under-the-table payments.

Holland is expected to call a special meeting of the UG Commission on Thursday to discuss the UG’s analysis.

Thursday’s meeting will be Holland’s last as mayor; he lost his bid for re-election in November to David Alvey. Holland and the fire department had been at odds during his term.

Holland had called for scrutiny of the KCK Fire Department’s spending, given that public safety accounts for about 60 percent of the UG budget.

In 2016, an audit of the fire department revealed, among other things, an imbalance of traded shifts. It also said shift trading allowed fire department employees to avoid using paid time off, which they could cash in on at the end of each year and their careers.

The audit came shortly before the UG and the firefighter’s union declared an impasse in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.

In January 2017, the UG and the union came to terms on a new contract, which still allowed for shift trading. The UG the same year started tracking the shift trading electronically, resulting in the latest report on the practice.

Holland met strident opposition from the KCK Fire Department last year during his campaign for re-election. Weeks before election day, several firefighters marched in front of City Hall protesting what they had considered potential downsizing of the fire department, a claim that Holland disputed.

IAFF Local No. 64 endorsed Alvey over Holland for mayor.

Holland said the UG analysis and this Thursday’s meeting were not meant as a parting shot to the fire department.

“I think this is a pretty critical issue that the public be made aware of,” Holland said. “The UG has put it out and it is my responsibility as an elected official to get that information out there.”

Kansas City, Kansas firefighters organized a picket outside city hall in October 2017 over possible staff reductions and comments from the mayor.

Mark Holland, mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kan, conducted a press conference while Fire Department workers conducted a protest outside City Hall saying the mayor was looking to cut positions. Video by John Sleez