The Los Angeles Fire Department has spent more than $ 22.5 million on COVID-19-related overtime, most of which was used to compensate for staff shifts who fell ill or were quarantined after contracting the virus, according to data analyzed by The Times.
The numbers highlight the damage the coronavirus is causing to fire department personnel amid the battle for the city’s employee vaccination order. Only about 70% of LAFD workers have been fully vaccinated, and some firefighters and union officials have warned of serious staffing problems if large numbers of staff refuse to comply.
But the data that The Times obtained under the California Public Records Act shows that the wasted time due to COVID-19 is already large enough, with more than 400,000 hours of work done between March 2020 and October 9 this year.
While firefighters and their unions have sued for a mandate and warned of a slower response time if implemented in full, much less has been said about these ever-increasing costs of an undervaccinated workforce, which medical experts and professionals say on ethics, is a mistake.
“One of the things we ignore is what burden do people get sick and are out of the house? It doesn’t seem to be tabulated, or at least clearly expressed in all the discussions about urban workers refusing to be vaccinated, ”said Arthur Kaplan, director of medical ethics at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. “They not only burden us with the threat of spreading disease, but they also selfishly burden taxpayers with the costs of having to replace them.”
Dr. John Schwarzberg, emeritus clinical professor of infectious disease and vaccinology at the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health who has long taught in infectious disease and vaccine hesitation, said the national and international corporations he consulted during the pandemic are already concluded that vaccination mandates are not only good government policy, but also beneficial for business, especially because they reduce the costs associated with quarantine management and overtime pay.
According to him, the same can be said about government agencies.
“This will allow them to have a stable workforce, and this stable workforce is being created in part because you won’t have that many people quarantining and far fewer people getting sick,” Schwarzberg said.
Cecile Aguirre, a financial systems specialist with the fire department who helped collect the data, said the numbers include all overtime reported under the budget category for “COVID-19 activities.” While the numbers may include some overtime work by LAFD members at testing or vaccination sites, they basically represent hours worked by participants who replaced others who got sick with COVID-19 or were exposed to COVID-19. and were also in quarantine.
She said she could not provide a more accurate breakdown due to the limitations of financial tracking software.
The fire department said in a statement that it had to increase overtime hours due to coronavirus-related claims and is tracking such costs to obtain federal reimbursement where possible.
The agency said the impact of vaccinations on staffing is “still undetermined,” but if it “creates an unusually large number of vacancies,” the department will consider temporarily closing individual fire companies.
The department ignored the growth it could get from vaccinated staff and directed other questions to Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office.
Harrison Wallman, Garcetti’s spokesman, said in a statement that the mandate “exists to protect the health and safety of our employees and the angels they serve – so that we can continue to move towards the end of this pandemic while keeping our employees at work. and get our city back to full strength as soon as possible. “
City officials have previously raised concerns over Fire Department overtime amid the pandemic, with Los Angeles Comptroller Ron Halperin in an August report noted that the LAFD spent $ 14 million on overtime at test sites – out of $ 236 million in overtime in total. 2020 – without “Adequate timing processes at test sites or for pandemic response in general”.
The costs of backfilling and quarantine staff represent additional costs that have not been previously reported, giving new insight into the significant losses that COVID-19 has inflicted on the department and the taxpayers who fund it.
The numbers show the overtime paid to cover shifts in the department’s divisions. The names of individual employees were removed from the data, but not the classification of their positions: firefighters, captains, fire apparatus operators and engineers.
The cost of an hour of overtime work varied depending on the classification of the employee working per shift. For some firefighters, it was less than $ 33 an hour. For the captain, it was $ 82 an hour. For a battalion commander, it was over $ 108 an hour.
The damage caused by the virus to city public safety personnel, including fire and police officers, was a major concern for city officials and department heads and one of the reasons the vaccination mandate was introduced.
City officials said COVID-19 threatens not only the health and safety of individual employees, but the public at large, including depleting the workforce and resources of public safety agencies. They said vaccinations are designed to help tackle both threats.
However, this message has not been included in recent discussions about public safety people.
Last week, Freddie Escobar, the president of United Firefighters of the local 112 Los Angeles branch, held a press conference in front of Westlake headquarters to warn of what, he said, would be “devastating impact on public safety” if the city continued to implement plans. to eliminate firefighters who refuse to comply with the mandate rules.
In recent days, unvaccinated city workers have begun to receive notifications informing them that they must pass and pay for coronavirus testing and vaccination by December 18 as a condition of employment if they do not receive medical or religious exemption.
Escobar said the Fire Department is already facing a shortage of personnel and that ambulances and fire trucks cannot operate without proper personnel.
“We have a personnel crisis now. And we just can’t afford to get worse, ”Escobar said.
Escobar did not mention the staffing shortages caused by the virus itself, or that they could continue at an even greater rate if most of the department was left unvaccinated.
Escobar did not respond to requests for comment on the overtime data.
On Monday, the union filed a mandate extension lawsuit, claiming the city was engaged in “unfair bargaining” over the terms and saying it “defies logic that the LAFD can properly handle an emergency and often saves lives.” helping the community when it depletes an already depleted fire department ”by firing unvaccinated employees.
The union, which represents the police, has also filed a mandate extension lawsuit, and individual officers and firefighters have also filed their own lawsuits.
The Times requested similar data on overtime work from the LAPD, but said it did not have such data because it did not fill vacancies left by vacant officers with COVID-19 or are in quarantine.
“Since we are not filling these positions, overtime is not paid, so overtime does not need to be tracked,” said Captain Stacy Spell, an LAPD spokesman.
However, the virus has taken a heavy toll on Los Angeles Police Department personnel.
Thousands of officers fell ill and drove the virus back. For most of the past two years, more than 100 LAPD employees have been absent due to illness or were in quarantine at any given time.
Without filling those positions, that meant there were hundreds fewer police officers in Los Angeles, while violent crime peaked and homicide peaked in a decade.
Kaplan, of New York University, said he was “ethically outraged” by public safety officials who refuse to get vaccinated despite “continuing evidence that there is nothing dangerous about getting vaccinated” and even though young children are beginning to get vaccinated as part of a broader social effort to end the pandemic.
“Failure to do what seven-year-olds are starting to do, which is vaccination, seems morally incomprehensible to me,” he said.
When this resistance also costs taxpayers money, Kaplan said, it is even more wrong.
“Not only are the firefighters literally selfish, they are just incomprehensibly demanding an effort from the city to cover the cost of their tenacity,” he said.
Times staff writer Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this article.