Monday, January 22, 2018
News Roundup

St. Petersburg firefighters paid for time not worked

About this story

When the Times started looking into this story in March, St. Petersburg Fire & Rescue said it had no way to calculate how many shift trades firefighters were making or whether they were being paid back. The newspaper then requested every "Exchange of On-Duty Time Request" submitted between March 2011 and March 2013. The Times received 3,500 forms and entered each one into a database to analyze the information and identify firefighters who made the most trades and owed the most hours. Reporters shared their findings with city officials and interviewed tax and legal experts. Reporters met with fire Chief Jim Large three times over the course of the reporting and reached out to the firefighters with the most trades. The firefighters quoted in the story spoke to reporters during off-duty interviews unless otherwise indicated.

ST. PETERSBURG — Over a two-year period, firefighter William Schleissing asked his colleagues to cover 1,144 hours for him, the equivalent of nearly five months of work.

Alisa Kapchinski, who also works as a nurse at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, needed her fellow firefighters to work 856 of her hours.

Stanley Kordecki, who owns a clothing firm, missed 484 hours at his firehouse.

But all were paid by the city of St. Petersburg as if they worked.

A decades-old policy allows for this underground market, where firefighters trade or sell their shifts to colleagues with little oversight. Firefighters negotiate cash payments with their replacements, barter goods or services, or simply promise to work for them later.

No other city workers receive pay and benefits for work performed by others.

The Times found the department's 310 firefighters swapped shifts with colleagues more than 3,500 times — the equivalent of about 58,000 hours — over a two-year period ending in March 2013.

The newspaper also found that:

• For years the city has been paying its first responders thousands of dollars in salaries, health care benefits and pension credits for work they never performed.

• Fire administrators take a hands-off approach. They don't check to ensure workers repay the hours or pay the agreed sum. A few firefighters retired without repaying hundreds of hours they were paid for but didn't work.

• The swap records showed such inequities in traded hours that it raises questions about whether firefighters are reporting them accurately. The practice also raises questions about whether all income is being reported to the IRS.

• Other Florida departments have much stricter rules that limit shift swaps. In other states, firefighters have been prosecuted for abusing the system.

In St. Petersburg, most city leaders had no idea of the practice, or that it was so widespread.

"You're kidding me," said Mayor Bill Foster. "We're doing that?"

Fire Chief Jim Large said he sees no problem with it, and doesn't think taxpayers should mind, either.

"When they call 911, they get the service they pay for," said Large, who has led the department since 2006. "Swap time doesn't compromise that service."

A public watchdog organization called on the city to curb the practice except for extreme circumstances.

"This is a form of gaming the system for personal enrichment," said Dominic Calabro, head of the nonprofit Florida TaxWatch.

"I have some serious questions about liability, about accountability, about transparency. It sounds like a wonderful gig for the firemen, but how is this benefitting the taxpayer, the citizenry?"

• • •

St. Petersburg firefighters work about 122 shifts a year — 24 hours on and 48 hours off.

Many work other jobs or run their own companies because of this staggered schedule. If they need more time, they can ask someone to work for them. No firefighter is allowed to work more than 48 hours straight.

Such swapping is allowed, Large said, because the department only allows a certain number of people to be off every day. If firefighters need time away — for a family emergency, a child's school event, vacation, etc. — they find a replacement.

Firefighters sign a form to report these trades, and until July had to report whether the swap was for cash. They did not have to list how much cash was paid.

When firefighter Schleissing, 51, retired in March, he still owed his colleagues 664 hours in unpaid trades, according to forms he filled out.

The U.S. Navy retiree, who had been with the department since 1999, got his colleagues to work 1,144 hours for him between 2011 and 2013. Of those 61 swaps, 22 were reported as cash. The most common recipient was firefighter Gerd Schuch, who Schleissing paid cash 13 times to work for him.

According to city records, Schuch worked another 612 hours for Schleissing without cash compensation or Schleissing repaying the hours. Asked why he would work the hours without reciprocation, Schuch said: "Maybe because I am a nice guy."

Such disproportionate rates of exchange prompt questions about whether firefighters made more than the 240 hours in cash swaps per year the policy allowed or bartered in other ways.

In total, Schuch worked 120 times for his colleagues, the equivalent of almost nine months of work over that two-year period. Of those, 56 were reported as cash.

Large said it is possible firefighters are making off-the-books payments, but he has no way to know.

"I wouldn't know what you'd worked out," he said. "And I gotta believe if someone's upset about it they're going to be squawking and screaming."

Schleissing, visited at his Riverview home last month, declined to talk and asked two reporters to leave his driveway.

• • •

Few outside the fire department know much about shift swapping. Several City Council members and city attorneys were not aware of the policy until the Times started looking into it.

Gary Cornwell, director of human resources, also did not know of the policy.

After researching it, he said, "it's considered a personal matter between the firefighters."

When asked about the retired firefighters who owe hours, Cornwell said no process exists for the city to recapture the money.

Other Florida cities have tighter controls.

Miami and Tampa's fire departments forbid cash trades. Miami firefighters also can only owe eight shifts at one time and will be docked pay if the hours are not repaid within a year.

"We have a limit to maintain control," Miami Lt. Ignatius Carroll said.

The newspaper contacted more than 20 St. Petersburg firefighters who logged the most trades. Nearly all declined to speak.

While standing in the doorway of a Fire Station 8 near Lake Maggiore, firefighter Chris Oliver questioned why the Times would examine the exchange policy.

"We put our lives on the line every day," he said. "If we don't have it, we'll just call in sick and cause overtime."

Many of the most frequent traders have other jobs, like landscaping and real estate, according to secondary employment forms required to be filed with the city.

Examples include:

• Willie Marshall, who operates the FireHouse Christian Center in Gibsonton and another ministry in Tampa. Marshall, 40, had the most unpaid hours of active firefighters — 725. He never listed a cash payment in 39 trades.

• Kordecki, 50, who owed his colleagues 424 hours as of March. Records show Kordecki, who never dealt in cash, also owns hydrantwear.com, which makes clothing for firefighters. (The city does not do direct business with him).

• Kapchinski, 38, who also works at Bayfront, had colleagues cover 62 of her shifts. She returned the favor 33 times, but still owed 412 hours as of March.

Firefighters say they are just operating within a system set up by their bosses.

Benjamin Lawson, 43, has been a firefighter for five years. He and his family own the Lawson Funeral Home & Cremation Service on Central Avenue.

In the two-year period the newspaper examined, Lawson missed the equivalent of roughly three months of work. He said he needed the time for personal business and vacation. He paid firefighter Chris Oliver in cash for many of his 50 trades. He owed 228 hours for swaps that weren't for cash.

He acknowledged that when he pays cash, the amount he gives his replacement is likely less than his own earnings for those hours. For example, he said he's paid colleagues $120 for 12 hours. On hour-for-hour swaps, he said he tries to pay the hours back but it doesn't always happen right away.

"It's going to be throughout the year when I can pay (the time) back," he said. "I never counted the hourly wages to know if I'm benefiting from it."

Firefighter Andrew Pepe, 43, a 22-year veteran, asked colleagues to work 461 hours for him in the two-year period and still owed 233 hours, according to city records. He said he has paid most of those back since March.

"I never do it for cash," Pepe said. "I only do it for the time."

Not all firefighters have racked up hundreds of unpaid hours. Many showed nearly equal trades.

With so many firefighters trading shifts, City Council Chairman Karl Nurse questioned whether the department has lost control of scheduling.

"We're at least allowing, perhaps encouraging, dishonesty," he said, adding the practice needs further examination.

Council member Charlie Gerdes wants answers from fire leaders.

"This is a mess," he said. "There's all kinds of legal and regulatory implications for the cash swaps that raise all kinds of red flags. My head is just spinning with all the possibilities this could raise."

Council member Leslie Curran called the practice "ridiculous."

"It must be nice to work a second job and have someone at your other job so you're still getting paid," she said.

• • •

Large has known for years the policy could cause problems.

While attending a state conference almost four years ago, Large broached the topic with then-Assistant Chief James Wimberly and assistant city attorney Jeannine Williams.

"The question on paying for swap time is a legal issue . . . ," Large wrote in a January 2010 email. "There is a feeling that what we do is an issue with (labor laws) and IRS."

Williams recommended eliminating cash trades. Wimberly pointed out many cities require hours to be repaid within six months.

"Most departments frown on exchange for cash. I agree . . . we need to change our policy," Wimberly wrote in an email.

Large replied: "I would really like a legal basis. There is a belief that this has been ruled on."

Williams and Wimberly tried to set up a follow-up meeting the next month. It's unclear why, but a meeting never took place. (Wimberly retired in 2011.)

On March 22, the Times requested swap records. Days later, officials revived discussions about the need to change the policy, according to emails later obtained by the Times.

Large, acting on Williams' advice, revised the guidelines in July to omit any reference to cash as a payment option.

"I did recommend they remove all references to payback," Williams said earlier this month. "It was my opinion we should stay out of it — completely."

An IRS spokesperson said it would be inappropriate to comment on the city's practice, but did say in general, it is up to individuals to claim all income. It's unclear whether firefighters who receive cash for working others' shifts report the income on their taxes.

City Attorney John Wolfe told the Times he was uncomfortable with cash exchanges.

"We shouldn't be doing it," he said. "I have a problem with the tax issues."

During several interviews with reporters, Large said his priority is to staff fire trucks for emergencies, not monitor every shift trade.

"That's between the two of them," he said. "It's not my responsibility to police whether a friend wants to work for somebody or not."

When asked why he sought to tighten the policy in 2010, Large said it was not because he suspected widespread abuse. He said he was concerned with just one firefighter: then-union president Will Newton, whom Large suspected of listing trades as hour-for-hour swaps when they were in fact for cash.

"He was never here," Large said. "I felt there was abuse, but I couldn't prove he was not filling out the form properly."

Large's new policy, issued July 3, also caps the number of hours firefighters can trade to 480 hours per year. That's still more than twice the amount allowed in Miami. Large said he did not consult other cities' policies or seek union input. He picked 480 hours because it mirrors the maximum amount of vacation firefighters receive.

Despite the tweaks, Large said he stands behind the practice.

Taxpayers shouldn't be upset that firefighters receive pay and benefits for hours they don't work, he said. The practice doesn't cost citizens because the city would be paying someone to be in the firehouse anyway, he said, and swapping doesn't rack up overtime.

"They're paying that salary when (firefighters) take 240 hours off for vacation," Large said. "Are they mad about that?"

That response didn't satisfy Calabro, from the watchdog group, who said he wondered why administrators are keeping a system out of step with modern employment practices.

"Just because it's been done for a long time does not in any way mean it's an acceptable process," Calabro said. "It's fraught with more problems than benefits."

In May, 13 Ohio firefighters were indicted after city auditors discovered some members of the Cleveland Fire Department owed months or even years of unpaid shifts.

A Cuyahoga County grand jury accused them of theft in office and soliciting or receiving improper compensation.

While researching possible changes to St. Petersburg's policy, Williams said she learned of other swapping scandals around the country, including the one in Ohio and another in Boston.

"It's not the same here because we don't have the same state law," Williams said of the Ohio case. "My legal opinion is it's not a cost to the taxpayer."

But Florida does have an "official misconduct" law that makes it illegal for public employees to falsify records and documents. The statute also prohibits "a public servant with corrupt intent to obtain a benefit for any person or to cause harm to another."

Williams said the federal Fair Labor Standards Act does not require firefighters to "pay" each other back. She said St. Petersburg's position is strengthened by U.S. Department of Labor opinions issued in 1993 and 2004 which held that exchange of duty for public employees — firefighters and police officers included — is allowed.

But just because employees can swap shifts, doesn't mean they do.

Police Chief Chuck Harmon said he hadn't looked at the department's exchange of duty policy for years. He couldn't remember a time when an officer used it.

"I would never envision it taking place in a police department," Harmon said. "It's never been in our organizational culture to swap."

• • •

Firefighters here know the city's policy is looser than most.

"We knew that ours was somewhat different," said Newton, the firefighter Large thought was trading away too much time. "It's a pretty liberal process, but it was still up to the department to approve it."

Newton, the brother of City Council member Wengay Newton, has since retired. He said his former boss is deflecting blame.

"All of these absences have to be approved. No one can just be AWOL," Newton said. "The city controls the system. The city designed the paperwork. The department needs to own this and stop passing the buck around."

Large declined to respond to Newton's comments. He said no firefighter has ever complained about time being owed. He also said he knows of no one taking massive amounts of time off.

He has no plans to ban cash swaps in a written policy. The system will stay private.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow on Twitter @ markpuente. Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected], (727) 893-8463 or @cornandpotatoes on Twitter.

     
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