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Berkeley firefighter made $700,000 over two years as department racked up overtime

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Tom Gantert and Brett Rowland

(The Center Square) – Amid the pandemic, one city of Berkeley firefighter made gross pay of $702,941 over two years.

That firefighter made $362,940 in 2020 with $213,708 in overtime and then grossed $340,001 with $181,726 in overtime in 2021. 

In 2021, 39 Berkeley firefighters made $200,000 or more. The city's acting fire chief said it is less expensive to use overtime to fill vacancies than hiring additional firefighters.

Spending on public safety in Berkeley has jumped 17% from 2019 to 2021, going from $113 million to $132 million. Public safety accounted for 37% of total city spending in 2021, according to city budget documents. Police overtime also accounted for high salaries. The highest-paid Berkeley employee in 2021 was a police sergeant whose gross pay was $353,259.

The city reported in its 2021 audit that public safety was over budget by $9.5 million in 2021 "due to overspending of Police and Fire overtime budgets. This was related to staffing shortages forcing mandatory overtime, and due to mutual aid requests."

Berkeley Interim Deputy Fire Chief Keith May said a policy called "minimum staffing," where fire departments are required to keep staffing at a certain level regardless of the need, played a role in the overtime costs. May said the number of emergency calls and the pandemic contributed to the higher salaries.

"The Department must keep a minimum number of firefighters working 24/7 to meet the 'normal' daily demand for service and provide adequate numbers of firefighters available to respond and assemble within nationally recognized response times for more critical or complex incidents," May said in an email to The Center Square. "Due to routine use of sick leave and vacation, coupled with attrition, there are often vacancies that need to be filled using overtime. The cost of maintaining enough extra full-time responders on staff to fill these vacancies would be greater than the amount the City spends to fill these temporary vacancies with overtime."

May said there are two types of overtime within the fire department: Voluntary and forced overtime.

"When a vacancy exists, firefighters are provided an opportunity to voluntarily sign up for overtime to fill the vacancy," May said. "When there are no volunteers, responders are forced to work extra hours. In the heart of the pandemic, forced overtime increased substantially. The factors which contributed to cause this included a city-wide hiring freeze, pandemic response operations which required extra staffing, and employees that contracted COVID and had to be off work for the required quarantine period."