With overtime demands skyrocketing in recent years, Sudbury Professional Firefighters Association president Mike Squarzolo is urging the city to review the issue.
“I have a few concerns from a health and well-being standpoint of the employees of the fire service,” he said. “The more time you work, the more you're exposed to toxic chemicals, carcinogens and mental trauma.
“It's reasonable to assume that cancers and PTSD will increase as a result. I mean, burnout, stress, increased absences and poor morale become prevalent in the short term.”
The city spent $1.15 million on career firefighter overtime in 2019, and the overtime figure hit $2.28 million by 2022.
“I can see burnout because of increased absences,” Squarzolo said, adding that the city has not kept up with the demand, which exacerbates the overtime issue.
In 2021, city council voted to add eight firefighters to their ranks to increase staffing at the Val Therese station to allow it to be staffed with four career firefighters on each shift, an increase from its previous two. The initial ask was for the city to add 10 new career firefighters.
During last month’s 2023 budget deliberations, city council deferred a business case proposing the addition of four full-time firefighters, to 2024 budget talks.
“Recent analysis of staff absences indicates fire services experience seven absences a day, on average,” according to the business case. “The existing overtime budget is not sufficient to cover these vacancies given the existing full-time employee complement.”
The demand for employees to factor overtime hours into their schedule to achieve Fire Services' minimum complement of 24 staff, per the collective agreement, is “a daily occurrence as overtime has become a normative requirement each day.”
By deferring the business case to 2024 budget talks, city CAO Ed Archer told Sudbury.com that the city will have time to determine the best way of tackling the issue.
“I believe there's more for us to do, and the work is ongoing,” he said. “I wouldn't jump to hiring more staff as the answer. I'd like to make sure the staff we have are available and ready to work when we need them to and at the same time that we aren’t putting an undue burden on them when they are at work.”
Included in the collection of options the city is looking at is how overtime is awarded, to ensure it’s spread evenly so no one is disproportionately affected, Archer said.
“We are doing what we can as an employer to make sure that people who come to work are not just physically safe, but also mentally, in a safe space to go home.”
The overtime issue is one that has occurred across various service areas and in many other municipalities, Archer said, adding that it has become exacerbated by the pandemic, which brought added sick leave and stress to the work environment.
The city currently has 112 full-time firefighters, and Archer noted that unlike many other municipal services, there are no part-time firefighters to help fill in gaps overtime hours are currently filling.
“We've tried introducing the potential for part time staff to be introduced into the service, but that hasn't been met with success so far,” he said.
Meanwhile, Squarzolo said the overtime hours are snowballing, with the evidence of increased burnout coming in the form of increased absences. He estimates there are between five and seven members on long-term absences at the moment, plus those off work for a few days due to illness or vacation.
Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.