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Portland firefighters ask for double overtime pay amid chronic staffing shortages

The firefighters' union says staffing shortages have forced firefighters to work mandatory overtime for two years.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland firefighters are asking for an overtime pay boost due to what they describe as two years of frequent mandatory overtime to plug gaps caused by chronic staffing shortages.

The union that represents firefighters with Portland Fire & Rescue is requesting that the overtime pay rate be raised from time-and-a-half to double time. Firefighters currently face disciplinary action if they don't work the requested overtime, according to the Portland Firefighters' Association.

A recent study commissioned by the department but conducted by the outside firm Citygate Associates found that Portland Fire & Rescue is severely understaffed, to the point that the lack of personnel is impacting response times on emergency calls.

"The number of firefighters that we have hasn't grown in 20-some years," said firefighter Isaac McLennan, president of the Portland Firefighters Association. "The population has grown. The problems have changed — social unrest, wildfires — the number of calls we go on are significantly more calls, but we have the same number of people."

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The department's staffing crunch was exacerbated when the pandemic began, he said, and the union agreed at the time to a system to try to evenly dole out the necessary overtime to keep the fire stations fully staffed. 

The department currently has 169 firefighters on duty at a time across 31 stations in Portland, McLennan said, but at current staffing levels, the department struggles to maintain that schedule.

"The city is offering overtime for people who volunteer," he said. "However, they're choosing to reduce on-duty staffing if there's not enough people, and they're also choosing to reprimand those, to penalize those people who refuse to work, who have to go home to their families."

There have been about 1,400 instances since the start of the pandemic where firefighters were asked to work extra shifts on short notice, McLennan said, with the length of the overtime shifts ranging from four to 24 hours. Anticipating an especially busy summer this year, the union asked for a change in policy, but so far has not received a response.

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Asked for comment, Portland Fire & Rescue said in a statement that it was working with Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the bureau, to resolve staffing issues, and said that double overtime pay was a possible solution to encourage members to volunteer for more open shifts.

"The recent Citygate study not only explained in detail the challenges that our members face in performing critical work, but also highlights the exemplary professionalism and dedication of our bureau staff," the bureau said in the statement. "We take the findings and recommendations in the report as a call to action and, as such, our executive team is constructing an implementation plan to prioritize and operationalize the report recommendations. We expect to have the plan completed by October 31, in time for consideration during the upcoming budget development process."

The department also stated that it has a mandatory callback agreement with the union that includes "progressive discipline for the refusal to work overtime."

The union disputed that description, however, and said that the agreement does not mention discipline and the union had never agreed to any form of progressive discipline. McLennan added that the agreement gives both parties the right to terminate it with a 30-day notice, and the union recently exercised that right due in part to the city's disciplinary actions, setting up a Sept. 22 end date.

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The Portland City Council reviewed the Citygate report an an Aug. 30 work session. During that meeting, Hardesty said that "it gives me nightmares" to contemplate double overtime pay, but added that "if anybody has a plan in the city about how we do double time, with a very limited amount of time and with a very strategic plan about how we bring staffing up to the levels we need, it has been Portland Fire & Rescue."

The city is currently down by about 30 firefighters from full staffing levels, and is expecting to lose more in the near future due to upcoming retirements. The union is also asking the city for permanent funding for 16 more full-time firefighter positions, as well as funding to open an additional fire station in southeast Portland due to the area's increased residential density.

"We are recruiting people — we have people in training right now that are going to come out," McLennan said, "but because we're behind so far, even if they were to recruit and hire people, we're still going to be in a hole for maybe one to two more years."

PF&R has traditionally relied on its own training academy to bring on new hires, but in January the staffing shortage forced the department to take the unprecedented step of opening up lateral positions to recruit firefighters with experience at other departments to try to quickly fill the staffing gaps.

At the time, Lt. Elizabeth Thompson with PF&R said the department was stuck with staffing below 2010 levels due to hiring freezes from before 2011 through 2014 and then again in 2019. She said the department had about 650 firefighters, down from 692 in 2010.

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