In Kansas City, Kansas, no one seems to be watching how firefighters trade shifts

An audit of the Kansas City, Kansas, Fire Department shows that some of its employees play fast and loose with the rules for trading shifts. The audit concludes that, among other things, firefighters trade shifts with one another in order to pad their annual pay without using accrued sick time.

Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas, Legislative Auditor Tom Wiss’ audit of the fire department was shown to the UG Commission last week. UG Mayor Mark Holland may comment about the audit sometime this week.

The audit comes as UG officials are negotiating a new collective-bargaining agreement with the KCK fire department. It also follows an analysis completed last year by FACETS Consulting, a Phoenix, Arizona, firm; that report indicated that UG’s funding of fire protection could be distributed more equitably and more efficiently if local officials enacted a number of its suggestions.

The KCKFD often boasts that it has some of the best public-safety response times in the country. But those bragging rights don’t come cheap. UG’s 2016 budget sets aside more than half its expenditures — 52.6 percent — for public safety. Of that $80.9 million, the KCKFD gets $38.3 million. Holland and other UG commissioners have wondered whether the KCKFD could cut spending in operations in order to build fire stations in underserved areas, such as Piper and western Wyandotte County.

The KCKFD didn’t receive the FACETS report kindly. IAFF Local No. 64, which represents union members in the KCKFD, issued a lengthy rebuttal to the FACETS analysis on March 1. The KCKFD has also dismissed Wiss’ audit, saying the fire department complies with the laws and policies that relate to its employees trading shifts with one another.

Wiss’ report doesn’t contend that laws have been broken, but it does suggest that the UG could tighten several loopholes within the county’s next agreement with the fire union.

Trading shifts is a common practice in fire departments across the country, where firefighters often work 24-hour shifts. The U.S. Department of Labor sets guidelines for how it should be done, and the UG’s labor agreement with union firefighters regulates the practice in more detail. But the UG audit, taken as a whole, seems to indicate that fire department employees and administration push the envelope in their shift-trading practices.

It’s supposed to be as simple as it sounds: One employee agrees to take another employee’s shift, with administration keeping track in order to ensure that a minimum number of personnel remain on hand at each station. Both employees involved are paid as though no trade ever took place; if a shift trade results in an employee working more hours than normal during a pay period, that employee isn’t supposed to receive overtime pay, according to both federal guidelines and the IAFF’s contract with the UG. That same union contract says KCKFD employees aren’t supposed to trade more than 24 shifts in a year; more than that is considered an abuse of the practice.

But some workers traded much more frequently than that in 2015, according to the audit.

The audit doesn’t name individuals, but it’s clear that one employee who traded more than 24 shifts was IAFF Local No. 64 business manager Robert Wing. The audit shows that Wing traded 94 24-hour shifts in 2015. Eighty-four of those trades, records show, were to handle union business.

The UG’s labor agreement spells out a number of instances in which a traded shift doesn’t count toward that 24-shift limit, and union business is one such exemption. But KCKFD administration has added other activities to the list of exemptions, such as attending to Fire Relief Association business. The FRA is more a trade association than it is a union.

The audit says that fire department officials trade shifts to avoid using accrued leave time for vacation and sick days, which leaves the UG with a financial liability at the end of each year, when it pays department personnel for unused leave time. In 2015, the UG paid $191,388 in unused leave time to fire department employees. (In 2014, it paid $366,258; in 2013, it paid $308,507.) Other UG employees have to use their leave time by the end of a given year or else lose it; only fire department employees instead receive year-end payouts.

One master fire captain traded 24 shifts in 2015 and still cashed in $13,491 worth of unused leave time, according to the audit.

Wing says the UG would incur more overtime costs if not for shift trading — a practice he says hasn’t come up during the most recent two years of negotiations between the UG and the union. “If there was an issue of trading time, it should have been raised some time ago.”

The weaknesses in policing how work shifts are traded provide other ways for KCKFD employees to increase their earnings. The audit cites instances in which an employee traded an overtime shift to another employee, but the employee who dumped the shift was still paid the overtime wage. Other examples include employees who traded the same overtime shift several times and were paid for shifts they didn’t work.

Wiss’ audit also invokes safety concerns: Employees sometimes work consecutive 24-hour shifts as a result of traded shifts (a practice about which the fire union’s contract with the UG contract is silent), with some employees accepting what looks like an imbalanced workload. According to the audit, one master firefighter gave away just five shifts last year, while working 156 shifts traded to him.

KCKFD Fire Chief John Paul Jones got to review the Wiss audit before it went to the UG Commission. In a March 9 letter to Wiss, Jones writes that shift-trading has worked out well for the fire department for more than three decades. As for Wiss’ recommendation in the audit, Jones points to the existing labor agreement: “In regard to any recommendations, any matter of clarification regarding trading time recommendations may potentially be impacted by the Memorandum of Agreement with Local 64 and should be viewed with an understanding of those parameters,” Jones wrote.

Not a surprising response, given how well shift trading has worked out for some department officials.

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