One Fairfax County firefighter tripled his salary to more than $270,000 with overtime pay. A county police officer took home $175,000 — in the realm of the police chief's annual salary — after working extra hours. A fire captain pocketed $163,000 in additional compensation, more than many of his colleagues make in a year.
The eye-popping figures have prompted Fairfax County supervisors to review overtime pay and other compensation for employees as the county faces a budget squeeze. Largely driven by overtime payouts to police officers, firefighters and sheriff’s deputies, more than 1,700 county employees who are not department heads earned more than $100,000 in 2016, according to county figures.
Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) said there is no evidence that county employees are abusing the overtime system, but he has requested additional details from county officials to determine whether changes need to be made to reduce overtime pay. He also wants to know how the compensation compares to other jurisdictions in the area.
“I think it raises a lot of questions,” Herrity said. “With public safety there is always going to be some overtime, but $270,000 gross on a $90,000 yearly salary raises questions. There are fiscal questions, management questions and safety questions. I have concerns about someone working a 48-hour shift.”
Public safety unions and officials strongly pushed back against the idea that overtime pay might be excessive, saying that some employees must work extra hours because of staffing shortages, others are putting in long hours during emergencies and others are working for entities that reimburse the county for the overtime.
Some were also rankled because many public safety employees have endured pay freezes in recent years and earn far less than many residents in one of the nation’s most expensive counties.
“They are complaining about guys who are working overtime trying to make the median income for the jurisdiction,” said Joseph Woloszyn, president of the Fairfax County chapter of the Police Benevolent Association. “That doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Richard R. Bowers Jr., the Fairfax County fire chief, said his department has been dealing with a chronic shortage of firefighters. Currently, he said, the department has 56 vacancies, forcing some to work shifts as long as 48 hours or be recalled to work each day. The empty positions are funded by the county, but not filled.
In addition, Bowers said, a lot of overtime is accrued by the department’s renowned urban search and rescue team, which is regularly deployed overseas by a federal agency to respond to earthquakes and other natural disasters. In those cases, the federal government reimburses the department.
He said that includes part of the overtime earned by the firefighter who took home $270,000 last year.
“What it boils down to is if you want overtime money reduced, you turn the overtime pay into full-time positions,” Bowers said. “We don’t force anyone to work a double shift. There are safety nets on the individuals who do.”
Police officials said they also institute measures to ensure that employee overtime is kept in check and officers aren’t overworked, including minimum rest periods between shifts and caps on the total hours worked each week.
“As a police department, we’ve done a terrific job of managing overtime,” Fairfax Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. said.
A spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office said that employee overtime is regularly reviewed. She said a recent initiative to divert the mentally ill from the jail has necessitated more overtime for training and to drive detainees to mental hospitals outside the area since beds are scarce.
The debate over overtime comes as the county passed a trim $4.1 billion budget on Tuesday that left some priorities such as police reforms and salary increases for some county employees unfunded. The school system also got tens of millions of dollars less than it asked for. Fairfax has contended with federal spending cuts and a challenging economy in recent years that have left revenue flat.