San Jose Cuts Endanger Public Safety
BY KEVIN BROWN | AUGUST 12, 2014
Cutting the pay and pensions of city employees has become a public safety issue for one of California’s largest cities.
After San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed implemented the cuts, an alarming number of city employees left to pursue better wages and benefits elsewhere. As a result, the San Jose Police Department’s 911 Emergency Dispatch Center is operating at critical staffing levels.
Every 911 dispatcher is now required to work at least 30-plus hours of mandatory overtime a month so emergency calls can be answered. Also, many are required to work four hours beyond their normal 10-hour shift and given just a few hours advance notice.
“People are leaving because of the attack on our pensions,” says Kellie Carroll, a 24- year veteran of the Police Department and former dispatcher who since transferred to a lower paying job in the Police Department to escape working 14-hour days.
“It’s not just our pensions,” Carroll adds. “The mandatory overtime and inability to hire qualified people has slashed our morale – people don’t feel valued anymore. We have fewer and fewer qualified job applicants because potential dispatchers would rather work at a smaller agency that pays more and has better benefits. We’re no longer competitive.”
Radio dispatchers and 911 call receivers are faced with making critical life and death decisions everyday. It takes unique skills to accomplish these tasks successfully, which results in increased difficulty attracting capable people willing and able to assume these tremendous responsibilities.
“Longer work hours create a difficult work environment,” says Jennifer Hern, police radio dispatcher and AFSCME Local 101 shop steward. “It hurts morale. This is not only unfair to employees, but it’s also unfair to the residents we serve. They count on us to be prompt and efficient to ensure their safety and comfort in an emergency, but if we are overworked and understaffed we can’t guarantee them that satisfaction.”
Newly hired dispatchers (following months of pre-employment testing and background checks) require 18 months of combined classroom and one-on-one training before they can function as solo dispatchers, so it is impossible to increase staffing in a hurry. San Jose cannot compete with career opportunities in neighboring cities, and staffing levels continue to decline. Communications staffing in its police department is down more than 30 percent of authorized positions.
“Everyone who lives in San Jose should expect public safety to be the mayor’s top concern, yet our staffing levels continue to drop, causing 911 calls to wait longer and longer before being answered,” says Karen Schlussel, a 911 call taker. “Letting any 911 call wait longer than it has to is not acceptable to me as a professional or to the public when minutes could mean the difference between life and death.”