Starting as a 911 dispatcher five years ago, Michael Sarti expected the long hours and demands of the job.
After all, the Allegheny County’s emergency response system needs people to take calls and coordinate police, fire and medical crews at all hours — and Mr. Sarti said he has volunteered to work some extra hours beyond his 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift.
But he was unprepared for what has become a familiar scenario: As he packs up to head home for the night, his boss unexpectedly requires him to stay for another full eight-hour shift. That has happened at least 24 times this year, he said, putting him close to 200 hours of overtime mandated by 911 center management.
The main culprit is not periods of high call volume related to extreme weather or major events like Steelers games and the Garth Brooks concert, according to dispatchers and the county officials.
Rather, mandated overtime is the result of a long-known lack of dispatchers — systemic staffing challenges that have reached a boiling point amid retirements and people leaving the field.
At Allegheny County’s 911 center, workers were issued more than 3,800 mandatory overtime shifts in 2018, a jump of 17% from the year before. Those hours come on top of overtime voluntarily worked by 911 center staff.
“I feel like I live there sometimes,” Mr. Sarti said in an interview.
Emergency management is one profession where overtime pay — intended to compensate for work performed outside of a normal 40-hour week — has become an expected part of the job.
In other 24/7 workplaces, like manufacturing and utilities, many employees enjoy the flexibility of working overtime hours to supplement their base salary or to build up compensatory-time hours to take days off. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American manufacturing workers put in an average of 3.4 hours of overtime in May 2019.
Mandatory overtime became one of the central issues in a nine-day strike that grabbed national headlines earlier this year as more than 1,700 locomotive plant workers in Erie bargained a four-year contract with Wabtec Corp. The Wilmerding-based manufacturer had just acquired the plant in a merger with GE Transportation.
In June, the workers reached a deal that kept overtime on a voluntary basis.
But mandatory overtime has raised concerns about when extra hours become too much, leading to burnout, high turnover and dangerous working conditions.
The U.S. Department of Labor has been wrestling with how to update federal overtime standards, which were last revised in 1975. Currently, certain white-collar workers making up to $23,660 qualify for time-and-a-half pay beyond 40 hours a week.
The Obama administration had proposed raising the salary cap for eligibility to $47,476, but a Texas federal judge struck down the rule in 2016. The Trump administration has proposed a cap of $35,308.
Heidi Shierholz, a senior economist for the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., has criticized that proposal as excluding 8.2 million workers from extra pay, many of them in retail and service jobs.
“We have a 40-hour workweek so people can spend time with their families,” said Ms. Shierholz, who was the Labor Department’s chief economist when it rolled out the Obama-era rules.
At the Allegheny County 911 center, the rise in mandatory overtime shifts reflects a vicious cycle both caused by and contributing to the county’s struggles to recruit and retain new hires.
As of June 14, the county employed 238 staff qualified to answer 911 calls or dispatch field units. The Service Employees International Union, which represents the center staff and supervisors, pegs that number at 220, excluding those on medical leave.
“I just don’t have enough people to go around,” said Chuck Kuntz, a supervisor who has worked in 911 dispatch for 40 years. “When I start off a shift and I’m 12 people short, it makes life difficult.”
Mr. Kuntz said he places some of the blame on the work environment and swelling mandatory overtime shifts leading to burnout of new hires.
“I think it’s at levels that we’ve not had before, and it’s grown over the years,” he said of the overtime shifts. “It’s something that’s been ignored over the years.”
Matthew Brown, chief of the county’s Department of Emergency Services, acknowledged the staffing issues as the “primary driver” of mandatory overtime. He said the county has been expanding training classes, with three classes ranging from 17 to 20 people slated to bring in new hires this year.
Training spans a period of months, including eight to 10 weeks in a classroom followed by 240 hours shadowing a dispatcher, answering about 1,000 calls. Mr. Brown noted that Allegheny County is among the most complex 911 operations in the country, managing about 400 agencies in 130 municipalities countywide.
“We’ve got seats that need to be filled,” Mr. Brown said. “Over the course of the last few classes, should all the students excel and do well in that training, it would bring us very close to full staff.”
Some new hires see the 911 dispatch center as an easy steppingstone to work in other realms of public safety, like police and fire departments.
That can be a recruiting tool — but also lead to some hard realities in training and high turnover, said Tom Troyan, a 911 dispatcher for 35 years. It’s getting more difficult to replace the veterans who are retiring, he said.
“It’s a job where the pool of people who can actually do the job, it’s scarce,” Mr. Troyan said. “It’s becoming a continuous revolving door.”
This year, the staffing problem has also been exacerbated by the 911 center’s long-planned move to the Pittsburgh International Airport in Moon. Many workers have considered leaving Allegheny County’s 911 center for Westmoreland County, and others have left for police and fire departments, both union and county officials said.
For Mr. Sarti, who lives in North Versailles, the move means his commute lengthens from 15 minutes to as long as an hour. He weighed the increased costs of the longer commute with lower pay if he moved to the closer Westmoreland County 911 center, which he estimated pays about $7 an hour less.
He said he chose to stay with Allegheny County, despite the stress. On at least two occasions in June, he was mandated to work overtime on back-to-back days, he said, stretching his workday into 16-hour shifts and leaving him with little time to sleep.
“I’m not getting home until almost 7 [a.m.],” on those days, he said. “I try to go to sleep for an hour or two, and then have to get back up and go to work.”
How does that make him feel at work the next day?
“Tired. Cranky. Irritable,” he said.