California

This Los Angeles Firefighter Has Been Banking Six-Figures in Overtime Pay Since the 1990s

In 2012, 51 employees of the department made more than $100K in overtime, but last year there were 439 workers making six-figures in OT, a new report says.

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NINA PROMMER/EPA/Newscom

There's a good argument to be made that Donn Thompson is the most well paid firefighter in the history of the United States.

The argument begins with this 1996 Los Angeles Times story, where Thompson was highlighted as a prime example of what the paper called "paycheck generosity" at the Los Angeles Fire Department. From 1993 through 1995, the Times found, Thompson had made $219,649 in overtime pay. At the time, the department was spending more than $58 million annually on overtime, an amount the paper called "budget-wrenching" and that far surpassed what other fire departments in big cities (like the Fire Department of New York, which at the time paid about one-third as much in overtime, the Times said).

Fast-forward to 2009, when the Los Angeles Daily News reported that the LAFD's overtime budget had grown by more than 60 percent in a decade. Once again, Thompson was riding business class on the gravy train, earning "$173,335 in overtime in addition to his nearly $100,000 base salary while working at Fire Station 19 on Sunset Boulevard in Brentwood," the paper reported. That was after making $190,256 in overtime during 2007 and $206,685 in 2006.

After another seven years, the only thing that's changed is Thompson's position. He made $307,541 in overtime pay last year, according to data released Monday by Transparent California, a watchdog project of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a free market think tank. Still, that was only good enough for third place. Edging just ahead of Thompson for 2016 are Charles Ferrari and James Vlach, who each made more than $330,000 in overtime pay during 2016, on top of regular salaries that topped $120,000. Ferrari, Vlach, and Thompson collected more overtime pay than anyone else included in the 600,000 public employees in Transparent California's database.

It's not a perfect comparison because the cities operate under different union contracts and have differently sized budgets, but the LAFD spent more than 38 percent of its budget on overtime pay last year, while the Fire Department of New York reported spending less than 20 percent of its total budget on overtime (other major city fire departments reported lower percentages). There are 30 LAFD employees in Transparent California's database who made more than $315,000 in base pay plus overtime last year—that's the amount paid to New York's best-paid firefighter in 2016.

And that's why Thompson is not just the most well paid firefighter in Los Angeles during the past two decades, but likely the best paid in the whole country. Messages left for Thompson at the fire station where he works were not returned Monday and other attempts to contact him were unsuccessful.

In 2014, when the San Diego Union-Tribune featured Thompson in a story about runaway overtime costs at California fire departments, he told the paper that he "basically lived at the station" and didn't go home very often.

"The first thing [people] think of is firefighters sitting around at the station, but they're not just handing out free money over here," Thompson said. "I'm working hard."

The Los Angeles Times found quite the opposite when it investigated the overtime pay issues at the department. In the 1996 article, the Times said most overtime hours are not connected to "fires or other emergencies. Instead, most of it goes for replacing those who are out because of vacations, holidays, injuries, training, illnesses or personal leaves."

Sure, you don't want to have an understaffed fire station when an emergency could arise at any time, but it sure seems like the overtime situation at the Los Angeles Fire Department could have been solved by now if there was an interest in doing so.

"The issue is not a lack of solutions," says Bob Fellner, research director for Transparent California. hose have been forthcoming from a coalition of experts, including those from LAFD's own ranks, for decades. The issue is lack of a political will for the precise reason an official outlined nearly two decades ago: fear of political retaliation."

Without the will to change anything, the problem just keeps getting worse. In 2012, there were 51 employees of the department making more than $100,000 in overtime, but last year there were 439 workers making six-figures in overtime, according to the Transparent California report.

One silver-living for the taxpayers who are footing the bill for all this is that overtime pay can no longer be factored into pension benefits. That was one of the reforms signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012. Overtime pay earned before that—like the millions of dollars in overtime earned by Thompson since at least the mid-1990s—do factor into pension calculations.

Even that small silver lining might be short-lived. Several fire departments in the state are challenging those pension reforms in a pair of cases that are heading to the California Supreme Court later this year.

"Unfortunately, public unions have weaponized the trust bestowed upon the firefighting profession as a means to enrich themselves," says Fellner, "at the expense of public safety and taxpayers alike."

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  1. There was an article a few years ago about how there are far fewer fires now than in the past – partially because there are fewer cigarette smokers – that the LAFD spends most of their time acting as EMT’s.

    1. If it’s anything like around here, “acting like EMTs” means turning hopping onto a fire truck and following an ambulance whenever there’s a call.

      1. That is what happens where I live, first you see the ambulance and then you see the fire truck following behind.

        1. How are they supposed to know if the fender-bender does not include a passenger on fire?

          1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

            This is what I do..,.,.,.,.,…,,… http://www.careerstoday100.com

          2. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

            This is what I do..,,..,,..,,…. http://www.careerstoday100.com

          3. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

            This is what I do.,.,.,.,.,.. http://www.careerstoday100.com

      2. Firefighters are basically EMT’s employed by the state in many cases, and are very often the first responders to pretty much anything.

        I attribute this to their long stretches of boredom while being essentially adrenaline junkies.

  2. These are not the 1% you’re looking for…

  3. Mind boggling. What’s also mind boggling is that I followed the links and saw that LA has almost 43,000 city employees. I’m as cynical as the next guy, but I just don’t understand how government and its employees can get away with this type of stuff when there are periodic elections.

    1. Just reread my comment and realized that perhaps 43,000 votes would be sufficient to swing an election. (But there weren’t always 43,000 employees).

    2. I’d like to blame it on single party rule, but…

    3. Three Words:

      Public Sector Unions.

      They are the one’s to blame for this type of thing. As Fist points out, it also involves one party rule. Without another party to point at it and say either ‘what the hell’ or ‘we can do that better’ why fix it? Who are you going to vote for to fix that problem when the party ruling expressly includes the interests of the Public Sector Union?

      1. The root cause is the ability to deduct state/local taxes from your federal taxes. If Trump succeeds in nothing other than abolishing that hideous blue-state subsidy he’ll be a modestly successful president.

        California’s 1%’s don’t care about local taxes or the state top rate of 13% because it’s always less than the federal rate they owe. It makes no difference to them. But once they have to pay that on top of federal rates watch Hollywood and Silicon Valley morph into the Heritage Foundation within a year.

    4. It’s pretty simple: They ply the electorate with horror stories about what will happen if they don’t get enough money, enough benefits, etc. Your house could burn down. You could die of a heart attack. Cops do the same thing – warn of crime “out of control”. Very little crime here, where everyone knows people are armed and will shoot.

  4. If the city was paying firefighters outrageous salaries, then the people would change it, through elections.

    Therefore, that’s not an outrageous salary, but the will of the people. QED.

  5. Hey, at least they’re not shooting kids while collecting that OT.

    1. Here’s the proof, people, that libertarians are nothing if not optimistic.

    2. Not too ften.

      1. *often

  6. The overtime policy is designed to be a perk tease for city workers even though most never take advantage of it. In this case, this guy did and cleaned up.

    There might be a lesson or two in this story somewhere. (1) don’t blame employees for taking full advantage of policy (2) If you don’t like like employees taking advantage of said policy, change policy or never implement policy like these (3) If you are cleaning up with OT, stay under the radar because people get jealous and try to take away your gravy train.

  7. Everybody complains about California except Californians.

    1. No, we complain about it too.

      1. Me too. Which is why I will never go back there for more than a brief visit.

    2. It’s all fun and games until they actually go no-kidding bankrupt.

      “President Trump to California: DROP DEAD.”

  8. Fire fighters and public sector employees do not produce anything. There is no justification for this type of pay versus the average private sector pay.

    A simple cost benefit analysis taking into account their lavish benefits would quickly prove that this is gross over payment and should be refunded to the coffers for the benefit of the tax payer.

    Of course this type of reasoned economic approach is heresy in our world of lemming zombies that still feels we have to praise all public sector employees who are in harms way.

    These are volunteer jobs and just because they are dangerous, it cannot possibly justify this type of income.
    When is California going to implode already? How can the whole state sustain all of the profligacy and waste?

    1. Last time I worked hourly was back in the ’90s. Some of my peers were abusing overtime accumulation (I wasn’t eligible to, as a contractor). It got so ridiculous at one point that there was a screaming match in the hallway because one of the worst offenders had come in over the weekend to take work out of another person’s Inbox so that she’d get the overtime to which she felt entitled. So my boss used this One Simple Trick? to get them to stop. It’s called You Need Advance Authorization to Take Overtime. Problem solved.

      Another way to cure this would be to make firefighters and cops salaried employees. This is your income; if you want to be a super-shiny model employee who does a lot of extra work of benefit to the community, then you get a bonus at the end of the year, but overtime doesn’t exist.

  9. Growing up my home town had an all volunteer fire department. They got their uniforms, and a stipend for being on call, but major expense for the city was maintaining the building and the two trucks. Today? It’s a private fire company.

    I just don’t understand how the big cities can get away with the kind of shit they do.

  10. What’s infuriating to me is that this doesn’t seem to infuriate other public employees. Why the fuck aren’t they in an uproar? There’s plenty of reasonably paid Firefighters in Police nationwide.

    Interestingly, in NH, I’ve see the local unions actually get on board with preventing double-dipping. It would be good to see more union pushback of the enrichment of a select few.

    1. Yeah, why aren’t the Unions saying to the city “you could hire two more firemen for what you are paying this guy in overtime?” That would be two more dues paying members, as I doubt this guy pays triple dues or something.

    2. Because its a teaser clause on the policy. Other employees don’t get mad because they ‘could’ earn that too, if they wanted.

      Nobody looks to cut that OT policy completely to save money for taxpayers…because fuck taxpayers as you must get yours!

  11. I suspect he’s the most well paid firefighter in the history of the ‘verse.

  12. Thank you for the alt text. Because that was exactly the question in my head when I went to check.

  13. Similar story in the NYDN, NY Post, etc about the MTA racking up near 1B in overtime pay in 2015.

  14. Simple solution. Don’t call them.

  15. The state should just declare bankruptcy and absolve itself of all current pension plans.
    Then start over.

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