The ABC11 I-Team obtained public records of overtime payments paid out across top municipalities to find costs are mounting.
The high price tags come as many municipalities struggle to retain and recruit workers following the pandemic. Staff vacancies and overtime hit public safety personnel particularly hard.
"The reality is that the pandemic really hurt us a lot," said Jason Davis, the president of the Professional Firefighters of Durham. "We had a lot of people that had to take some time off due to the pandemic."
Firefighters with the city of Durham earned $1.6 million between July 2021 and July 2022. Overtime for the city's fire department accounted for a third of the overall $5.4 million spent on overtime expenses.
Davis said Durham firefighters are not required to work mandatory overtime and do have caps. He also said he believes these dollars are being spent wisely.
"The reality is if we don't have the overtime and we aren't able to hire people back then we would have to shut some trucks down for particular shifts or for so many hours, whatever the case may be," Davis explained. "Then in that case there is more of a risk for the community because it takes us it would take another truck longer to get to their house if there was an emergency."
He said in recent months the number of needed overtime hours for firefighters has decreased.
The city's water management department and police department also were listed as top earners for overtime this past year.
Joe Lunne, a spokesperson for the city's water management department said some of the overtime was attributed to vacancies of staff responsible for critical operations/ infrastructures. He also cited 2,200 after-hour emergency calls.
The Durham police department also connected overtime costs with staffing challenges.
The city of Durham's budget stated its police department, "continued to utilize overtime funds to fund a minimum staffing initiative to maintain a presence of officers patrolling the streets during periods when high vacancy rates would otherwise prevent that presence."
The department stated continual overtime efforts will remain a goal this year. The vacancy rate for the department averaged around 14%, an increase from 2020 when it was just under 5%, according to city data.
Vacancies drive up overtime expenses across other municipalities as well.
Back in December, the ABC11 I-Team reported hundreds of vacancies across local municipalities.
The City of Durham, Wake County and Cumberland County each reported around a 20% increase in staff vacancies. At the time, a majority of Wake County's vacancies were linked with the health and human services department, the Sheriff's Office and EMS.
Durham County ended 2021 with more than half of its vacant positions tied to the Department of Social Services and its Sheriff's Office and jail.
The latest Durham County budget predicted staffing turnover would be decreasing slightly (10% v. 12.6%). The budget also pointed to high vacancy rates in public safety due to compensation and work-related stress. The county did increase pay for officers and detention officers
Between July 2021 and July 2022, Durham County paid $1.9 million in overtime to staff at the Sheriff's Office and jail; this is nearly half of the county's overall overtime expenses for the year. Another $1.3 million was paid to EMS personnel who worked overtime.
Similarly, EMS accounted for 39% of Wake County's overtime expenses with $6.4 million paid out. County data revealed the amended budget for EMS overtime increased by around 68% between 2021 and 2022.
Staffing challenges also plaguing the Sandhills. Cumberland County reported a high turnover rate of 16.5% and a vacancy rate at around 18.5%, according to its latest budget.
"Our Sheriff's Office and Detention Center are one of the areas experiencing vacancy rates above the countywide average. To address the recruitment challenges in the Sheriff's Office and the Detention Center, the recommended budget includes $400,000 to establish a training incentive for those who are seeking to be trained to become deputies and detention officers or for those who wish to pursue additional training to advance their skills, education, training, and compensation."
Cumberland County reported spending $2.3 million on overtime in the last year while Fayetteville spent $2.8 million.
"We, fortunately, have people willing to step up and work the overtime to keep the public safe and keep our firefighters safe and you know, we would much prefer for municipalities to bring in more employees and to increase staffing," said Scott Mullins, the president of the Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics Association of North Carolina.
Mullins said when it comes to decreasing overtime for firefighters increasing pay would help recruit more workers.
"I think the light at the end of the tunnel depends on the department. In departments where they're actually taking care of their firefighters, paying them a decent wage, I think those departments are going to continue to do better for recruitment and retention," Mullins said. "I think that the departments who are not adequately paying firefighters I think they're going to continue to lose people and the public's ultimately going to suffer."
Davis said in Durham, he and other firefighters have a lot of ideas for recruitment and retention and are hoping to collaborate with leaders.
The I-Team has also requested overtime expenses for the city of Raleigh but has not received the information yet.