Cayman Islands firefighters who worked on holidays between December 2015 and this year apparently went unpaid and are due back pay immediately, according to a draft report from the government’s Internal Audit Unit that was released to the press last week.
Meanwhile, overtime costs are continuing to plague the department. Overtime pay in the fire service jumped 44 percent between 2014 and 2015, according to the audit. That increase was preceded by a $1.1 million overtime bill in 2014.
Both problems are at least partly due to understaffing troubles that have plagued the fire service for the last several years.
The government’s Internal Audit Unit found in July 2016 that more than 69,000 hours paid in firefighter overtime during 2015, at a cost of nearly $1.7 million, is the equivalent of 33 full-time employees working 40 hours per week for the full year.
The large reliance on overtime pay to make up for staff shortages was also offered as an explanation in the report for high numbers of sick days taken by some firefighters.
The Internal Audit Unit noted that at the time of its draft report being completed, 39 positions in the department were vacant due to a hiring moratorium.
“The issue of severe staff shortages, including the negative impacts it can have on fire officers and those persons relying on them, has been noted in two [earlier] reports,” internal auditors noted. “However, we noted that no actions [have] been taken to address the findings presented in those reports.”
Those earlier government reports were completed in 2011 and 2013, according to auditors.
Before December 2015, Cayman firefighters who worked on public holidays were compensated according to a department work schedule, but that schedule was suspended by the department’s new management, who felt it was not in accordance with rules governing civil service employment.
As a result, firefighters were no longer paid for working public holidays, according to the draft report.
The audit unit determined that the previous rules for dealing with holiday work compensation were correct.
“Extra duty hours that occurred on holidays between December 2015 and present, that were not paid or the time not given back, should be calculated and paid immediately,” the auditors recommended.
However, in its response to the recommendations, the fire service management noted it had never been made clear what rules should have been followed with regard to paying workers for holidays – and that this affected a number of public safety departments including the fire service.
“Therefore it is our position that we cannot pay back pay relative to this at the Cayman Islands Fire Service, as there is no allocation within the current budget to fund such an expenditure,” the fire service management responded.
The matter would be “regularized,” fire service managers said, when new civil service personnel rules came into effect in January 2017.
OT problems persist
The internal audit unit review that first revealed problems with fire service staffing in 2013 showed 40 vacant positions out of a total 168 within the service. Essentially, the report stated that the fire service was running its standard operations while being down about one quarter of the staff it needed. Eighteen of the vacancies were in the line of duty within either aerodrome (airport) or domestic (land-based) fire services.
To fill the vacancies and continue to staff local fire stations around the clock at that time, firefighters were continually brought in on overtime pay, leaving the government with a bill of between $500,000 and $1 million for overtime which the government was forced to pay in a lump sum during the 2013/14 budget year.
According to a 2015 review of the fire service by U.K. consultants, many times, the firefighters staffing stations on overtime were not responding to calls during the period because none came in while they were working.
The consultant’s review stated that whether or not there was a fire emergency, crews still had to staff the stations, leading to more firefighters working more hours at either regular rates or time-and-a-half (overtime) rates. Meanwhile, the fire service was making an average of just more than two calls per day.
According to fire service managers, 33 of the vacant jobs have been “funded” in the current 2016/17 budget. New recruits are expected to fill entry-level fire officer positions while more senior fire staff are moved up the ranks via the internal recruitment process.