Coronavirus surge driving up OT hours for Cobb County firefighters

Cobb County Fire and Emergency Services' overtime hours have shot up in recent months due to firefighters being out on quarantine. (Photo provided/Cobb County Fire and Emergency Services)

Combined ShapeCaption
Cobb County Fire and Emergency Services' overtime hours have shot up in recent months due to firefighters being out on quarantine. (Photo provided/Cobb County Fire and Emergency Services)

Cobb County firefighters have been pulling long hours this summer.

Staffing levels are at a minimum for the county’s 29 fire stations because an increasing number of the workers have had to quarantine during the ongoing surge in coronavirus cases.

Each day, according to Fire Chief Bill Johnson, an average of 20 of the county’s 785 firefighters and paramedics have been absent because they’ve either contracted COVID-19 or been exposed to the virus.

That’s left other crew members working double shifts to cover the gaps.

As a result, over the past three months, Cobb Fire and Emergency Services has seen a 256% increase in overtime from what it paid during the same period in 2019 before the pandemic arrived.

“We’ve been hit very hard,” Johnson said Tuesday. “Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future with the way the pandemic is hitting us right now, I don’t know how long it’s going to take before we see an end to this.”

From June 1 through Aug. 17, the county’s firefighters logged 12,694 hours of overtime, according to Cobb County records provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. During the same period in 2019, firefighters in Cobb County worked 4,964 overtime hours.

Records show those hours have added up to at least $1.8 million in overtime costs so far this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. That’s nearly twice the $1 million that was budgeted for overtime.

“It’s a constant struggle for our battalion chiefs to call people and make sure that they have adequate staffing on each shift to meet the demands and make sure all of our apparatus are staffed,” Johnson said. “It’s been very difficult for them, but we’re doing everything we can to make sure that we do that because we serve the citizens.”

Cobb County does not require any of its employees to get vaccinated.

Cobb County Commission Chairwoman Lisa Cupid said she wasn’t aware of the overtime issue when contacted by an AJC reporter Tuesday. She later had a phone conversation with Johnson, who briefed her on the excessive overtime.

Johnson said he’s also met with County Manager Jackie McMorris and Randy Crider, the county’s public safety director. The three plan to have future meetings to address the firefighters’ overtime.

Cobb Fire and Emergency Services has a $114 million annual budget that’s independent of the county’s general fund.

Cupid said the fire department hasn’t requested any budget amendments from the county’s Board of Commissioners this year.

That’s likely to change soon. Johnson said he will lobby for county commissioners to add more firefighters as a way to limit the overtime. He’s begun meeting with his command staff to determine how many more would be needed.

Johnson also plans to request a slice of the county’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to reimburse the department for the COVID-related overtime expenditures. The federal funds can be used to reimburse local governments for costs associated with the pandemic.

Cobb County is still in the midst of selecting a consultant that will help commissioners decide how to spend the $148 million in ARPA pandemic-relief destined for the county.

“There’s a lot of departments that have wish lists for ARPA, but we’re just waiting on the consultant to come on board before we can start funneling those through,” County spokesman Ross Cavitt said.

About a third of Cobb’s firefighters and paramedics worked some overtime between June 1 and Aug. 17, according to records provided by the county.

Cobb firefighters operate on a work schedule that sees them humping 24-hour shifts followed by 48 hours off duty. That means they can work 48 hours straight — two shifts — before they’re required to punch out.

The department has a safety policy that ensures all firefighters have at least 24 hours off before their regular shift begins.

Johnson said the fire department limits overtime for each employee to 72 hours per pay period – firefighters operate on a three-week pay scale.

John Brady, president of the county’s fire union International Association of Firefighters 2563, said none of the firefighters have been forced to work extra hours.

Brady, a retired Cobb County firefighter who has spent 35 years in the department, said he hasn’t heard complaints about the increase in overtime. ”You’re playing the hand you’re dealt,” he said Wednesday. “They’re trying to continue delivering the service that they’ve always delivered. As union president, I couldn’t be more on board with how they’re handling it.”