Public safety agencies nationwide are constantly looking for ways to improve the efficiency, fairness, and safety of their scheduling policies. Adding off-duty programs not only increases scheduling complexities, but also adds risks and potential liability. It’s imperative to have well defined, enforceable polices in place to help mitigate these risks.
Thousands of officers and firefighters across the nation find supplemental work in off-duty assignments — from working at concerts to patrolling sporting events and protecting local businesses. Secondary employment assignments provide public safety personnel an opportunity to increase their take-home salaries. While this can be an added benefit, off-duty work also carries a substantial amount of risk when not managed properly -- which often comes to light once it’s too late.
The significant risks that come with off-duty employment include:
- Unmet compliance
- Unfair job distribution
- Officer fatigue
By taking a closer look at your agency’s off-duty policies, you can help to mitigate some of these risks while keeping your off-duty personnel happy and safe.
Challenges of Managing Off-Duty Programs
Public safety staffing managers face continuous scheduling challenges each and every day. Meeting 24/7 minimum staffing levels, backfilling last-minute vacancies with qualified personnel, controlling overtime cost – it’s definitely a complicated and multifaceted job. Providing an off-duty program for external employment assignments adds another layer of complexities. Let’s take a look at what public safety leaders face when it comes to their off-duty programs.
Complying with complex regulations
When public safety personnel schedule off-duty events or pick up over time, it can complicate these factors. Compliance regulations that agencies must follow with regard to off-duty scheduling add to everyday personnel management. That includes the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), which governs overtime pay. Furthermore, some states have their own laws and regulations regarding off-duty work that departments must take into consideration in addition to federal regulations.
For example, the City of Dallas found in a 2018 audit that officers were working too many off-duty hours. The problem? It was difficult to monitor non-agency hours. The audit found that “supervisors often don't know when and where cops are working off-duty jobs,” and recommended the city, “implement oversight instead of leaving approval to individual supervisors, and ensure requests are submitted early.”
On top of overtime regulations, it’s important for agencies to educate their personnel on liability for off-duty assignments — including the risk of off-duty injuries, accurately reporting time worked and potential legal liability.. In Minneapolis, for example, the state’s Supreme Court ruled in one case that the city wasn’t liable for an off-duty lawsuit.Without clear communications, qualified assignments and effective event tracking, gaps can result that leads to lawsuits, injuries or payroll double-dipping.
Enforcing off-duty police rules
Fatigue is a common issue among public safety personnel, which can create dangers for both the off-duty officer/firefighter and the public. This is exacerbated when there is an increase in off-duty assignments. It’s important that your off-duty policies include rules for managing fatigue and that they policies are enforced. Technology can help with this by tracking work hours and automating assignments based on policies that enforce rest periods. This helps to ensure that off-duty personnel are getting the rest they need and will reduce potential fatigue-related liability.
Assignment fairness is another key area that should be included in your off-duty policies. Popular or high paying jobs are always the preference. Including assignment criteria, such as capping how many hours can be worked in a pay period or skill requirements, can create a more equal playing field. This may require working with your unions or other labor organizations. It's also important to have a process in place for investigating violations and taking disciplinary action when necessary.
Adapting to digital processes
Although technology can help agencies overcome scheduling challenges, it’s sometimes met with resistance. Agency personnel may not want to change from a ‘good-old-boys’ assignment model to one that’s digitally controlled based on your policies. Resistance can also result from the increased transparency technology provides in tracking assignments, hours worked and employer feedback. While digital processes help agencies improve the efficiencies of their off-duty program, agencies must help their personnel adapt.
Leadership from the top down must reinforce the commitment for change and the advantages that technology delivers. Providing the ability to view and sign up for off-duty events using a mobile app is one way to encourage adaptation. Officers and firefighters should feel comfortable enough with technology as an aid that helps them focus on operations.
The Future of Off-Duty Scheduling
Public safety chiefs across the United States are responsible for ensuring that their officers and firefighters are in the right place at the right time. This can be a challenge when personnel work secondary employment jobs, especially at a time when the number of available officers and firefighters has shrunk, with recruitment and retention levels steadily declining. Fortunately, there are tools available to help manage schedules and ensure that everyone is where they need to be when they're needed.
Technology that automates off-duty scheduling and tracks assignment hours helps agencies comply with union rules and labor laws. It improves assignment fairness, manages fatigue policies, and eliminates potential double-dipping.
Keep in mind these key considerations for managing your off-duty program:
- Comply with the law: There are a number of laws and regulations that public safety agencies must comply with when it comes to off-duty scheduling. These include the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and state and local laws. Understand them and include them in your policies.
- Balance the needs of the workforce and the agency: It's important to find a balance between the needs of off-duty personnel and the demands of your agency. Officers and firefighters need time to rest and recharge, but your agency also needs them to achieve staffing levels requirements and respond to emergency situations.
- Be flexible and fair: Off-duty scheduling can be complex and ever-changing. Public safety agencies should be adaptable to changing needs based on your program’s policies – which should be consistently enforced agency-wide.
By following these steps, public safety agencies can ensure that they are compliant with the law and that their off-duty personnel are safely scheduled. Yes -- off-duty programs can be complex to manage. But with careful planning and execution, program risks can be mitigated and its advantages achieved.