Union blames lack of overtime for San Jose’s fire inspection backlog
An engine in the San Jose Fire Department's fleet. File photo.

    Despite having filled nearly all of its vacant positions, San Jose’s Fire Prevention Bureau will likely fall behind in conducting fire inspections — and largely because of its failure to pay overtime.

    “There’s a short-term solution to try to bring down the backlog and that is to reinstate the allowance of (paid) overtime,” said Matt Mason, lead organizer for Local 21, which represents inspection engineers. “We’re still at a loss as to why that hasn’t been done.”

    San Jose’s 20-member fire inspections team consists of engineers who review plans for new construction, provide advice on codes and regulations and conduct in-person inspections of new development projects.

    According to San Jose Fire Chief Robert Sapien, the department currently only has one vacant position remaining for an associate engineer to help conduct these inspections, among other duties.

    A recent report from the city’s auditor found the department had a 20-day backlog of plan reviews. The department had also wrestled with a weeks-long backlog of inspections but has recently worked the backlog down to two business days.

    However, Mason said this reduction in backlog is temporary due to the economic slowdown following the county’s shutdown orders to slow the spread of COVID-19.

    In addition, Mason said the city has previously filled these vacant positions with people who were not yet qualified to begin conducting fire inspections for new and existing buildings. Such inspections determine if a building is safe for occupancy and enable homes and businesses in the city to function.

    “(An inspection) requires a certain level of experience and expertise,” Mason said. “If you’re not competitive in a competitive market… you’re not going to be able to hold onto your best and recruit people who can hit the ground running.”

    Sapien said the fire department hires qualified applicants, however, new hires require specialized training before they can conduct inspections alone in the field.

    Central to remaining competitive is offering fair compensation. Currently, fire inspection engineers are salaried employees and not eligible for paid overtime. Mason said this differs in comparison to other cities in the Bay Area which offer their salaried fire inspection engineers paid overtime.

    “It is not a competitive salaried position for similar engineer positions in the area,” Mason said.

    A few of the city’s fire engineers participated in a year-long pilot program in 2016 to test the effectiveness of a different wage structure that offered paid overtime. Mason said payment for overtime incentivized engineers to work down the city’s backlog of inspections, which at one point had been more than a month long.

    The union and the city explored how to make the pilot program permanent but disagreed on certain points.

    Brad Fox, a former inspections engineer with the San Jose’s Fire Prevention Bureau, said one of the issues was that the engineers in the pilot program were accruing vacation time at a higher rate than employees of a similar classification. The city’s Office of Employee Relations offered to continue the program with reduced vacation time but the engineers did not accept it.

    Jennifer Schembri, director of San Jose’s Office of Employee Relations, said the union and city also disagreed on whether a worker who is given management-level benefits should be offered paid overtime. She said the city offered to continue the pilot program before making permanent changes, but the inspectors’ union declined.

    Schembri said a classification and compensation study of the fire inspection engineers was underway when the coronavirus shutdown order was enacted. The study has been delayed, Schembri said, but should be completed in a few months. The study will help the city determine what kind of salaries, benefits and duties should be offered to these workers.

    Mason said his union is looking forward to the study’s completion, which will help inform their union’s wage negotiations for next year and potentially result in paid overtime.

    “The fire department management supports that solution,” Mason said. “Labor relations is the one that is withholding implementing that change.”

    Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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