Miami-Dade County

More than 200 Miami-Dade workers paid to take it easy

A Miami-Dade fire chief has been on light duty for nearly eight years, restricted from carrying out his usual work but still receiving his $124,319.78 annual salary after suffering an injury outside the job.

It’s the same for 28 other fire-rescue department employees, who have been given less demanding workloads despite having injuries that were not incurred while working, according to a county survey released Wednesday.

The survey, conducted by Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s office at county commissioners’ behest, shows that no other agency has more employees receiving full-time pay for light-duty work — due to injuries suffered either on the job or off — than fire, which is facing significant cuts in the budget that commissioners are scheduled to approve Thursday.

Seventy-eight of the department’s 2,431-member work force — about 3 percent — fall under the restrictions. That’s far higher than the county as a whole, where less than 1 percent of employees have been assigned to light duty — a figure that includes the fire department. That’s about 2 percent of corrections and rehabilitation employees; about 1 percent of transit employees and less than 1 percent of police employees.

A relatively small number — 211 — of the county’s nearly 26,000 workers across 43 agencies have been assigned to light duty, for an average of about 13 months, the survey found.

Employees may be placed on either temporary or permanent light duty as a result of an injury, as stipulated in the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, Family Medical Leave Act and Workers’ Compensation, according to the county.

For years, the firefighters union has been trying to get more workers back on regular duty, said Rowan Taylor, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1403.

But it has been difficult for a variety of reasons, he said. Sometimes, employees and the county are at odds over whether certain injuries were caused by the job even if they occurred outside of work hours. And some employees have had cancer or been diagnosed with heart conditions or other chronic illnesses that prevent them from passing required physicals.

“We go through those battles every single year with this county,” he told the Miami Herald last month. “We agree: We would love for all those people to get back to work and offset overtime and [let the department] hire more people.”

Under the proposed 2013-14 budget, the department would have to lay off 59 firefighters — including 40 new recruits hired this year — and eliminate three fire trucks unless it is awarded a federal grant next month. The department also faced a crunch this summer, with fire stations briefly going through a “rolling brownout” — idling trucks and personnel — to compensate for overtime and other expenses exceeding revenues.

Before commissioners take a vote on the budget Thursday, they will hold a second and final public hearing. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

The first hearing last week centered on layoffs and service cuts to public libraries. Having avoided that pain by depleting the libraries’ financial reserves for next year, commissioners will likely now turn their attention to other parts of the budget — including the fire department.

The light-duty question arose at an informal budget discussion last month, when Commissioner Audrey Edmonson asked Fire Chief Dave Downey about the restricted employees in his department. He estimated there were about 81, a slightly higher figure than the actual 78.

“That’s a lot,” Edmonson said on Aug. 26. “And they’re getting paid the full salary — to sit.”

Gimenez, a former firefighter, told Edmonson he agreed with the concern, mentioning the extreme case of a firefighter on light duty for 14 years after suffering an on-the-job injury.

“They get the salary that’s commensurate with what they would be doing in the field,” Downey said at the meeting. “Basically whatever their position is or rank is had they been working on the truck.”

It’s unlikely commissioners could address Thursday any qualms they might have with the number of light-duty employees. The fire and transit departments mention light duty in their labor contracts, which will be renegotiated with unions next year.

Wednesday’s survey notes that the transit department has a written policy regarding light-duty assignments, but the fire department does not. Neither do two other departments.

Health privacy rules prohibit the county from disclosing why employees have had their duties restricted.

Without delving into potential reasons why, Wednesday’s survey suggests the fire department grants light duty on a long-term or permanent basis more often than other agencies. Twenty-one of the 78 fire employees on the list have been on it for more than three years, the survey shows. Only seven other county workers — six in police and one in corrections — fall under the same threshold.

Two of the fire employees on light duty hold the title of chief, each making an average of $130,555 a year. One is a commander, making $119,961 a year. Three are captains, each making an average of $118,210 a year.

The light-duty assignments for firefighters range from “maintaining and exchanging the uninterrupted power supply batteries” that keep telecommunications equipment running to serving as a dive-rescue instructor.

One firefighter on light duty for 18 months is in charge of “stocking items and assisting clerks.” Another, on light duty for more than three years, handles “graphic design,” including creating posters and compiling photos for an online gallery.

A third firefighter’s responsibilities for more than two years: “clerical assistance to the secretary.”