Chris Baker Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — For two out of every six weeks, Syracuse police officers are required to work only 32 hours. Yet they’re paid the same as a 40-hour week.
And overtime pay, which is time-and-a-half, kicks in for any work on top of 32 hours during those short weeks.
It’s an arrangement that keeps cops off the job at a time when the department is overwhelmed and short-handed fighting violent crime. And it’s more costly to Syracuse taxpayers than a regular schedule.
Syracuse patrol officers end up working 17 fewer days a year than other city employees.
The unusual schedule contributes to the police department’s overtime costs, paid to some of the city’s highest-paid employees. The average officer worked about 7.5 hours — nearly one full shift — of overtime per week in 2017. Overtime costs were nearly $9 million.
Chief Frank Fowler cites the schedule as one of the reasons why the department needs to hire more officers to fill shifts.
Two common councilors say the city should find a way to get its cops working a full 40-hour week. The police chief agrees the city needs to get more regular hours from its officers.
But the police union president counters cops should be treated differently from other employees since the department operates around the clock and their jobs are especially stressful and dangerous.
Working five consecutive days is taxing, the union says. A creative schedule is needed so the same cops don’t get stuck working every Saturday and Sunday.
How it works
The police union’s contract, dating back to 1994, defines a work week as four consecutive days on duty followed by two days off. It’s an effort to rotate which days patrol cops work and give them more frequent breaks.
The four-two schedule gives officers 17 more days off per year than employees who work a regular 40-hour work week. According to the union contract, officers will work 243 days a year, not the standard 260. That does not include vacation time or sick leave.
The four on, two off system is called “the wheel,” a mechanism that turns over every six calendar weeks.
For four of those weeks, officers work five full days — a 40-hour week. For the other two, however, officers get three days off, resulting in a 32-hour week. An officer’s pay is the same for those weeks as it is in the 40-hour work weeks, according to the city’s personnel director.
Officers who aren’t scheduled by the wheel end up working more total days per year. To make up for that, the contract says cops who work a regular 40-hour work week should be compensated to even things out.
So, 9-to-5 employees are awarded 12 extra days off per year.
More than half of the department’s officers are on the wheel — all patrol officers and many records officers. There are around 400 officers on the force.
Common Councilors Michael Greene and Tim Rudd raised the issue during a recent vote on the police contract. They said the city should find a way to get cops working a 40-hour week.
A deal ‘too good to be true’
The current version of the wheel was adopted in 1994. A contract approved by the union and former Mayor Roy Bernardi changed the work week. Before that, officers worked a five-two, four-two schedule: five days on, two days off, followed by four days on, two days off.
Chief Fowler said he benefited from the change as an officer when it was first made. Now, as the top administrator, he said it doesn’t benefit the department at all.
“[As an officer] I thought it was too good to be true, but it wasn’t wise to do that,” he said in a recent interview. “They didn’t think ahead. But back then … our call volume was down and we had a lot of police officers, and I’m sure the administration at the time didn’t look into the future and say, ‘Boy, how is this going to look in 2018?’ “
Robert Stamey, city director of personnel, said there’s been some version of a wheel for decades.
“These kinds of things have been baked into the union contract since the 1970s,” he said.
At the time the deal was struck, the department had about 100 more officers than it does today and the city was in a stronger financial position. This year, the city is operating at an $11 million deficit.
The union agreed to smaller pay raises for five years in exchange for the schedule change, according to Police Benevolent Association President Jeff Piedmonte.
With more cops, the wheel worked well, allowing the department to fully staff shifts and give officers the rest they needed. As the ranks have thinned, it has become more difficult to staff the streets using the wheel, and the department has leaned more heavily on overtime to fill shifts.
Piedmonte said the four-two schedule lessens the number of consecutive days an officer works, leaving the officer fresher and more alert. He doesn’t think officers should be asked to work more hours at straight time.
“Working more hours, I don’t think is a reasonable solution,” Piedmonte said. “When we had the five-two, four-two schedule you honestly could walk around and pick out who was in their five-day week and who was in their four-day week, because that one extra day made the week that much longer. Adding stress and more hours to the police officers isn’t going to help anything.”
Most officers, however, already work much more than those straight-pay hours. For any shift on top of their four regularly scheduled days, or for hours worked after the end of a scheduled shift, they’re paid an overtime rate.
In 2017, 470 officers worked a total of 176,079 hours of overtime, which cost the city $8.8 million. The average officer worked more than seven hours of overtime per week — nearly one extra shift, for which he or she would be paid time-and-a-half.
The average officer made $18,700 in overtime last year.
“The low-hanging fruit would be to say you get a well-rested police officer,” Fowler said. “But that’s not true because the police officers you speak of still have to work overtime for our minimum staffing. So we’re not even getting the benefit of having a well-rested police officer.”
Staffing vs. hours worked
In a budget hearing earlier this year, Councilor Rudd raised the staffing issue with Fowler.
Rudd asked how the size of Syracuse’s police force compared to cities of similar size. Fowler said it’s better to compare the hours scheduled, not staffing.
“Our police officers work…four days on, two days off, which is a 32-hour work week,” Fowler said. “You have to compare those numbers to what the officers are working in other cities as well, which you’re going to discover that they’re working more than 32 hours a week.”
Since officers work fewer hours here, Fowler said, we need to hire more of them.
The other option, Fowler said recently, would be to have officers work 10- or 12-hour shifts. By overlapping shifts, he said, the department could put more officers on the street during peak hours.
Piedmonte said the answer isn’t to make officers work more hours — the four-two schedule was contractually agreed upon by the city and the union in 1994.
Even with overtime, he said, the department doesn’t always meet minimum staffing requirements for patrol shifts. The only answer, he said, is to hire more cops.
“You can’t just come in and add hours” to an officer’s schedule, he said. He said councilors are trying to save money on the backs of city cops while ignoring similar savings that could be found in other departments.
Mayor Ben Walsh has already approved two classes of recruits this year, adding 38 officers to the force. But, that’s barely kept up with department retirements.
Overtime hours and costs, meanwhile, have skyrocketed in the last decade. Between 2012 and 2016, the annual overtime cost doubled to $13 million.
A 2016 audit attributed that increase to bad deals with the police union and bad tracking of overtime costs because of outdated technology, among other things.
What other cities do
Some Upstate cities are experimenting with 10- or 12-hour shifts. In Syracuse, officers work an eight-hour shift.
Fowler said he wasn’t aware of any other departments that operated on the same shift schedule as Syracuse.
In Buffalo, some officers work four 10-hour shifts, followed by three days off. Every third week, officers get four consecutive days off instead of three (a 4-2, 4-2, 4-3 wheel).
Buffalo’s cops are also required to live in the city for at least seven years. The Syracuse police union has opposed a residency requirement.
Albany uses a five-two, four-two wheel — the kind Syracuse had until 1994. Officers are required to work shifts of 8 hours and 15 minute.
Utica does not have a wheel. Neither does Binghamton. The work week is defined as simply 40 hours with eight-hour shifts.
In Rochester, officers work a four-two wheel. Their shifts are eight hours and 15 minutes.
Piedmonte said going back to a five-two, four-two schedule like the one Syracuse used to have would only add a few days to the year for each officer and wouldn’t make much of a difference.
He said the union and the city also discussed switching to 10-hour shifts during the most recent round of contract negotiations, but decided against it.
The city and the union will re-enter negotiations for a new contract soon. The current contract is expired as of Dec. 31, 2017. ———
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