For the last three years, two EMS crew chiefs and a senior paramedic have been among the top 10 highest paid employees working for the City of Pittsburgh.

Each year, the trio earns somewhere between $150,000 and $200,000 each, sometimes more. That’s because they consistently work many overtime hours and receive ‘bonuses’ for not taking personal and sick days. Without that extra money, each would earn between $55,000 and $60,000 annually.

While Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said those men are usually self-motivated and happy to work the extra hours, they represent a trend that the city is working to change. Rather than pay tens of millions in what it calls “premium pay” each year, the city, and the Public Safety department in particular, are working to increase staffing levels so employees aren’t working as many extra hours. Though some workers want all the hours they can get, the sheer volume of extra hours could be straining employees who are already performing pressure-filled jobs as police officers, paramedics and firefighters. Not to mention, is this a responsible use of taxpayer dollars?

Year after year, Public Safety department workers earn the largest share of what the city gives out as premium pay. Some years, Public Safety accounts for more than 90 percent, in part because they work so many overtime hours. And the reason they work so many overtime hours is because the police, fire and EMS bureaus have been understaffed. Hissrich and Mayor Bill Peduto say they are working to address the staffing issue. The goal is that more staff will naturally decrease overtime and other types of premium pay.

“The idea is, the more firefighters [and] police officers you put on, that does drive down overtime costs once they’re on the street and once they’re fully functional,” Hissrich said.

However, tracking that progress so far is difficult because the city recently changed its payroll system. Prior to 2016, money that city employees earned beyond their scheduled salaries was generally categorized as premium pay. The figure included overtime, sick day buyback, uniform allowances and more, but the city only provided the total figure and not a breakdown of each premium pay category.

Last year, though, the city upgraded its payroll system and can now break out overtime and bonuses from the larger “premium pay” category more easily.

Because the system changed and because premium pay includes categories beyond overtime and bonuses, data that PublicSource obtained from the city this year is not all-inclusive and it’s not currently possible to look at overtime trends over the years.

We are able to trace trends in premium pay over the years, though:

  • In 2014, the city spent $42.1 million in premium pay.
  • In 2015, that figure rose to $43.7 million.
  • Last year, premium pay totaled $44.4 million.

While that total has risen each year, the rate at which it’s gone up has slowed. There was a $1.6 million increase from 2014 to 2015 and only a $700,000 increase between 2015 and 2016.

Outside of the Public Safety department, city spokeswoman Katie O’Malley said Pittsburgh has also made a number of other changes to grow its ranks and drive down overtime. The Office of Management and Budget now tracks overtime pay and sends regular reports to departments, so they can make staffing adjustments when needed. The city has also shortened the time it takes to hire an employee, in part by contracting with a private company to conduct background checks of new hires.

But increasing Public Safety staff has proven to be difficult, Hissrich said. Fewer applicants are coming through the police academy and other training programs. In the EMS bureau, Hissrich said, there are 11 open spots that he’s struggling to fill. He said he had 15 applicants for the positions, but only six were qualified for the jobs.

Staffing levels, though, are beginning to creep upward. In February, the city announced it was hiring 20 EMS workers, bringing the department up to 197 total employees. And in March, the city said the fire bureau had 24 more workers this year — 663 in total — than it did last year. Those hires bring both bureaus to their highest levels in more than a decade, the city said. The police bureau, too, is at its highest employment level since 2002 with 891 officers.

While the city is pining for more Public Safety employees, it’s also conscious that it needs to hire a diverse array of workers. Public Safety is the city’s largest department and one of its least diverse.

“Trying to do both is difficult,” Hissrich said. “When you have less applicants you have less diversity.”

In the meantime, Public Safety workers continue to rack up overtime pay, more than any other department.

According to data the city provided to PublicSource, overtime made up 9.6 percent of all the money Public Safety paid its employees, a remarkable figure given that most other departments paid less than 1 percent in overtime. O’Malley, however, noted that the fire bureau reduced its premium pay by nearly $1.5 million between 2015 and 2016.

According to PublicSource’s analysis, 2,302 city employees earned overtime last year, 1,647 of whom work in Public Safety. (The department employs 1,970 people.) The city paid out at least $14.4 million in overtime last year and $7.7 million in bonuses. The Public Safety department accounted for about 86 percent of that.

Other categories of additional pay could have been left out of those figures, so it’s possible an employee could have earned more money than the overtime and bonuses listed.

Hissrich said he is trying a number of methods to increase recruitment and diversity in public safety. For one, the department worked with Pittsburgh Public Schools to develop a training academy with Westinghouse Academy, whose students are mostly black, to encourage them to become police officers, paramedics and firefighters.

“I just can’t manufacture diversity,” Hissrich said. “I want to increase diversity across the board, but it’s somewhat difficult.”

Hissrich is allowing the crew of the A&E television show “Nightwatch” to follow and profile the city police, EMS and fire bureaus for several months, hoping the national exposure encourages more people to train and apply for public safety jobs in Pittsburgh. He’s also working to encourage students in the University of Pittsburgh’s emergency medicine program to stay in Pittsburgh and work for the city.

One upside, Hissrich said, is that sometimes public safety staff are working overtime hours to cover special events in the city.

“I hope by this time next year the overtime costs go down, but if we have a Stanley Cup or something, sometimes the overtime is worth it,” he said. “Sometimes it’s good to have the overtime because you’re bringing business into the city.”

Clarification (3/16/2017): The story previously misstated that the city Public Safety department set up the training academy at Westinghouse Academy, but it was, in fact, a collaboration with Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Note: Data that PublicSource obtained listed 3,318 employees, but 10 of them were hired in late December or early January and didn’t have salary information available. For that reason, those people are excluded from many of our analyses.

PublicSource Interactives and Design Editor Natasha Khan produced the graphics for this story.

Reach J. Dale Shoemaker at 412-515-0069 or Follow him on Twitter at @JDale_Shoemaker.

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J. Dale Shoemaker was a reporter for PublicSource between 2017 and 2019.