In August 2016, Austin Fire Lt. Greg Pope was working 24-hour shifts as an operations firefighter when the every-two-years International Association of Firefighters Convention came around.
The four-day meeting in Las Vegas is a bellwether event for the nation’s unionized firefighters and their leaders, where numerous resolutions were hammered out, awards given and allegiances strengthened or ended.
To attend, records show, Pope asked the chiefs of the Austin Firefighter Association, or AFA, to be paid for 96 hours. His ciphering was simple: 24 hours times four days.
The association agreed. He would be paid out of a fund called authorized business leave, or ABL, which is paid by the city, under the terms of the local union contract, with no questions asked.
Pope was working 24-hour shifts at the time: 24 hours on duty, then 48 hours off. In the eyes of the AFA, that justified his request.
Pope clearly did not work 96 hours for the city during the conference. Nor did he miss 96 hours’ worth of pay: In a typical 24-on/48-off schedule, he would have been paid for two 24-hour shifts.
Bob Nicks, president of the AFA, acknowledged that Pope did not work 96 hours. And yet he said Pope deserved to be paid for the time, as he was giving up those hours, even though he did so voluntarily.
“He was working 24-hour shifts, so he would have missed those shifts,” explained Nicks, who signs off on all leave time. However, even with payment for part of a shift that could have been missed due to travel time, the time he would have been routinely paid for is still substantially less than 96 hours.
City and firefighter association documents show that paying firefighters for hours beyond those worked while using leave time is common. The documents are part of a lawsuit filed by two citizens alleging it is unconstitutional for the city to pay for time spent on activities that do not directly benefit taxpayers.
The material was provided by the city, in part from documents obtained from the AFA. In her deposition, Sylvia Flores, deputy director of the city’s labor relations office, said the hours are rarely tracked.
“Every now and then, we may ask for [information on] the utilization of hours, but it’s not something we do frequently,” said Flores, who did not return a call for this article. Nor did Assistant City Attorney Hannah Vahl, who is representing the city in the lawsuit.
Leave-time rules vary from city to city, said John Riddle, president of the Texas State Association of Fire Fighters.
In some cities, firefighters donate a few hours of their vacation time to a leave pool to ensure association business gets handled. In others, such as Austin, the city agrees to pay firefighters for a combined total number of hours of outside activities. Under Austin’s firefighter contract, that combined total is 6,600 hours.
“How it works is up to the city” and the contract that gets negotiated, Riddle said.
He added that the use of leave time is generally prudent and “relevant to what they have going on in their town. I don’t think there’s anyone dishing out leave time to go fishing.”
The hours are paid by the city but approved by the firefighters association management, supposedly based on rules set out in the contract.
The hours paid are often not based on those actually devoted to an activity, but on the amount of hours a firefighter would be losing if he or she had not chosen to attend a meeting or event, Nicks said.
In numerous cases, documents show, employees have been paid more for attending events than they would have been paid for had they gone to work.
Austin Fire Capt. Christine Jones was paid for 28 hours in 2016 to represent Capt. Lance Zenkner in two days of hearings that resulted in Zenkner being sanctioned for posting political comments on his Facebook page.
In 2017, firefighter Todd Purcell received 72 hours of leave time for a two-day fishing event benefiting his charity that provides disaster relief for public safety workers in Austin.
“He turns in hours he thinks he would work,” Nicks explained.
The leave time is an obligation the city agreed to in 2017 as part of the five-year contract with the firefighters; the paid leave costs around $200,000 a year.
In most cases, the hours are allocated in increments that suit the request: a meeting, a station visit or a luncheon for cadets.
Other requests appear to exceed the amount of time to be spent on the activity. Employees are routinely paid for 24 hours to attend the funerals of firefighters. Last year, four employees were given 24 hours’ pay for a two-day bike ride for charity.
The time is almost always granted with few questions.
In the last three years, 15 of 1,113 requests for leave time have been denied, or around one percent. Two of those refusals came because the requestor was the subject of an internal investigation and another because the time was requested to address the discipline of the requester. A fourth was dismissed, but the requester was advised to talk with a commander to make other arrangements and another simply because it was submitted too late.
The rest of the 15 were subsequently approved after the initial refusal; two were submitted with the wrong dates and the requester was coached to resubmit with the correct information.
The time used, in fact, is a sticking point between the city and the department. Pope, the firefighter who attended the Las Vegas convention, said he was paid for 72 hours — still more than he would typically have been paid for working but 24 hours less than the amount shown on the timesheet compiled for the lawsuit. He chalked it up to shoddy record-keeping by the city.
“We would love to see a more legitimate accounting of these hours,” Pope said. “These are the funds of the citizens and money that should be accounted for.”
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].