Thursday, February 3, 2011

Shift swapping in the Boston fire department

The Globe has an illuminating article on a system originally intended to allow Boston fire fighters to trade shifts with one another without money changing hands, that seems to have gotten out of control, possibly turning into a cash system.

Trading the call of duty for a call of convenience: A system that lets Boston firefighters swap shifts has turned into a costly free-for-all. Some barely work for years and never make up the time. The city does almost nothing about it.

"It is a familial courtesy as intrinsic to the culture of Boston firehouses as shared chicken dinners. When a firefighter can’t make his shift, a colleague steps in, on condition the favor will be returned.
"But there are scores of Boston firefighters whose shifts have been covered by others for weeks or months at a time, with no record they have ever reciprocated and worked off the debt.
"One firefighter, Gregory L. Burton, owes his firehouse comrades 554 shifts — nearly three years of work — for shifts he borrowed over five years while he was tending to a successful real estate business, according to department records.
"The lack of accounting — and the absence of limits that other fire departments routinely impose on shift swaps — has nurtured a subterranean culture in which some firefighters pay cash to others to work their shifts, or repay the obligation by doing outside work like home renovation projects for their firehouse creditors, according to interviews with several firefighters, who asked that they not be identified by name.
"One telltale sign that much of the debt has been settled privately: Fraser and Keating said not a single firefighter who is owed shifts has ever filed a complaint. Under-the-table cash payments would violate tax laws if the income is unreported.
"Shift-swapping is common in fire departments, but so are stringent controls on the practice, according to a Globe survey of big-city fire departments across the country. And the Boston Police Department, which permits its officers to swap shifts, turned over to the Globe records showing deficits to be virtually nonexistent."

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