How one LA firefighter turned a $90,000 salary into $1.6 million over the past four years

Overtime pay that was at least triple his regular salary in each of the past four years allowed Los Angeles firefighter Donn Thompson to collect a combined $1.67 million in total earnings from 2014-2017 — according to an analysis of newly released pay data from TransparentCalifornia.com.

Such outsized overtime pay allowed Thompson to clear over $400,000 in cash earnings for each of the past four years — despite drawing a regular salary that ranged between $86,000 and $92,000.

Transparent California Executive Director Robert Fellner said Thompson’s ability to collect such enormous amounts of overtime pay is without peer among the more than 2.5 million government workers surveyed statewide.

“Collecting overtime pay that is triple your regular salary in just a single year is basically a one-in-a-million feat. Thompson’s ability to do so over four consecutive years is without peer and, quite frankly, boggles the mind.”

Thompson has been among the city’s top overtime earners for decades, as reflected by a 1996 Los Angeles Times report that cited him as an example of LAFD’s “paycheck generosity.”

More recently, Thompson was among the trio of Los Angeles firefighters featured in the Transparent California report LA firefighter trio earns nearly $1 million in OT pay (again) — which found that Thompson and his 2 colleagues received the largest overtime payments of the nearly 2.5 million government workers surveyed statewide, in both 2015 and 2016.

The just-released 2017 pay data reveals that those same three firefighters are once again atop the city’s list for highest overtime pay, but with Thompson coming out on top this time:

Los Angeles City’s top 3 overtime earners (2017)

  1. Firefighter III Donn Thompson, who received $306,405 in OT for total earnings of $437,341.
  2. Fire Captain II Charles Ferrari, who received $284,882 in OT for total earnings of: $443,437.
  3. Fire Captain I James Vlach, who received $280,182 in OT for total earnings of $431,518.

While department spokesmen have responded to previous years’ reports by indicating that the dramatic rise in overtime was an anomaly that would likely taper off in future years, the data show just the opposite.

Last year, 512 Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) employees received over $100,000 apiece in overtime pay, which represents a tenfold increase from the 51 who earned that much in 2012.

26 LAFD employees received over $200,000 apiece in overtime pay, with average total earnings of $383,401.

Total department wide spending on overtime pay has also increased dramatically, with the $198 million spent on overtime last year representing a 74 percent increase from the $114 million spent in 2012.

The data also indicate that the total number of firefighters has remained relatively flat over the past 5 years, with the 2,066 firefighters listed on the 2017 payroll report representing a 3 percent increase from 2012.

As discussed in more detail in last year’s report, overtime pay at LAFD is significantly above the levels found at many of its peer departments nationwide.

Los Angeles County

A similar narrative played out at the county, where an agency-high $322,677 overtime payout boosted Los Angeles County Fire Captain Sergio Burciaga’s total compensation to $518,998.

The next 4 county employees who received the largest overtime pay were:

  1. Battalion Chief Thomas Ray: $283,529 in OT and $602,627 in total pay and benefits.
  2. Fire Captain Timothy Bauer: $275,560 in OT and $489,713 in total pay and benefits.
  3. Battalion Chief Dennis Breshears: $272,511 in OT and $580,216 in total pay and benefits.
  4. Fire Captain Richard Mullen: $263,501 in OT and $477,816 in total pay and benefits.

Like the city department, the county fire department also saw a tenfold increase in the number of $100,000-plus overtime payouts, which rose from 60 in 2012 to 645 last year.

Total overtime spending at the county fire department rose 52 percent over that same time period, reaching an all-time high of $212 million last year.

The dramatic rise in overtime spending occurred despite an increase in the number of county firefighters, according to the data. In 2017, the county spent $319 million on base salaries for its 2,992 firefighters — a 14 percent increase from the $280 million spent for the 2,866 county firefighters listed on the 2012 payroll report.

Six-figure leave time payouts

County employees can also boost their regular earning by cashing in unused leave. Last year, 209 employees received over $100,000 each in unused leave payouts, with twelve employees receiving payouts in excess of $250,000. The top 3 leave time payouts went to:

  1. Former Chief Public Defender Ronald Brown, who received a $358,572 leave time payout.
  2. Former Sheriff Captain Douglas Fetteroll, who received a $315,474 leave time payout.
  3. Former Sheriff Lieutenant David Smith, who received a $288,950 leave time payout.

Total county employee compensation hit an all-time high of nearly $12 billion — up nearly 31 percent from 2012.

To explore the entire 2017 Los Angeles County payroll report in a searchable and downloadable format, please click here.

Transparent California will be continually updating the site with new, 2017 data from the remaining cities and counties in the coming weeks. Be sure to follow our blog and Twitter accounts, or sign up for our mailing list, in order to receive the latest updates.

For more information, please contact Robert Fellner at 559-462-0122 or Robert@TransparentCalifornia.com.

Transparent California is California’s largest and most comprehensive database of public sector compensation and is a project of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a nonpartisan, free-market think tank. The website is used by millions of Californians each year, including elected officials and lawmakers, government employees and their unions, government agencies themselves, university researchers, the media, and concerned citizens alike. Learn more at TransparentCalifornia.com.

Categories: 2018, Press Releases

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