Friday, June 22, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Job swaps cloaked in smoke, mirrors

At any given time, St. Petersburg fire Chief Jim Large cannot have a clue who is on the job — or isn't. Many of the city's firefighters may be at work protecting the city — or they may be elsewhere, protecting other paychecks.

But the fire chief can't know for sure. Gen. Halftrack has more of a steady hand on the tiller of command than St. Petersburg's fire chief has over firefighters treating their taxpayer-funded department like a flea market, buying and selling and trading job shifts.

This isn't a fire department. It's the Home Shopping Network of first responders.

As the Tampa Bay Times' Mark Puente, Kameel Stanley and Anna M. Phillips reported Sunday, St. Petersburg's firefighters long have engaged in a loosey-goosey, opaque, unaccountable practice of trading work shifts — all under the incurious nose of the fire chief.

For two years ending in March, 310 firefighters swapped shifts with co-workers more than 3,500 times, or about 58,000 work hours. Go ahead and wonder if you could get away with that where you work.

The end result is taxpayers are footing the bill for thousands of dollars in salaries, health costs and pension credits for firefighters who never performed the work. The Internal Revenue Service likely is not amused.

Of course, it didn't take long before a St. Petersburg firefighter, Chris Oliver, pulled out the "We're special" card, defending the sweeping wink-wink/nod-nod job swap practice with a predictable response: "We put our lives on the line every day. If we don't have it (the perk to not show up for work and still get paid for it) we'll just call in sick and cause overtime."

It is true firefighters and paramedics certainly put their lives on the line. So do, as we all too painfully know, St. Petersburg Police Department officers. But the job swap practice among St. Petersburg police officers is rare, subject to review and approval by supervisors.

So Oliver was suggesting that simply because of the risks associated with firefighting, employees have a right to game the system in determining their schedules? And if the swap practice is reined in, these same noble firefighters will simply begin to abuse sick leave benefits?

That's not very … first responderlike.

There's no question a firefighter's employment is different — working 24 hours on duty, followed by 48 hours off. But this schedule hardly comes as a surprise for the men and women who join the department. While many firefighters use their down time working at other jobs, their first obligation should be fulfilling their public safety obligations. When the moonlighting job begins to intrude on the firefighter's primary responsibility, perhaps the time has arrived to pursue other interests and let someone do the job who cares about showing up.

The current swap system is not administered by the city but among the firefighters themselves, leading to all manner of potential abuses. Junior firefighters might find themselves pressured to work a more senior worker's hours — for less pay. And an overworked firefighter filling in for a co-worker could present potential liability and safety issues.

And there is the problem of some firefighters who stiffed their colleagues by retiring while still owing those who swapped shifts with them hundreds of hours of time. Take firefighter William Schleissing, who retired owing 664 hours of the 1,144 total hours swapped out.

Departing Mayor Bill Foster sat in City Hall for four long years never knowing about the job swap practice. "You're kidding me," the astounded departing mayor responded. "We're doing that?"

Large conceded it is altogether possible firefighters make off-the-book payments to cover a job swap. But he insisted he has no way to know — since the swaps aren't administered through his office. Is it a good idea to have a fire chief with these management skills?

That's a question Mayor-elect Rick Kriseman ought to be pondering.

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