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EDITORIAL: 12-hour-plus shifts for 911 dispatchers put everyone in danger

York Dispatch Editorial Board
Gábor Barna talked about conditions at York County Department of Emergency Services, at his home, Friday, August 31, 2018. The 911 Center employee resigned from the county after the interview. Bill Kalina photo

The coronavirus pandemic has everybody either working strange, long hours or not working at all.

With one in 10 American workers losing their jobs in the space of a month and some industries amping up hiring, this is an unprecedented time in the U.S. economy.

And the York County 911 Center seems determined to use this time to, once again, put the screws to its dispatchers.

Last month, the center made the unilateral decision to move all of the dispatchers to 12-hour shifts, five days a week, a move that directly violates the contract, which mandates five scheduled eight-hour shifts per week plus up to 12 hours of flexible overtime that employees can schedule on their own, according to the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents the dispatchers.

More:'A gun to their heads': County 911 dispatchers forced to work five 12-hour shifts — plus overtime

More:York County 911 dispatchers required to work 12-hour shifts over union's objection

The thinking behind that move, according to county spokesman Mark Walters, was that reducing the number of shift changes, from three to two, would limit the possibility of staff being exposed to the coronavirus, because fewer people will be coming and going throughout the day.

Let's try to work through that logic: Say you have 12 employees working three eight-hour shifts. They would all pass each other in the course of the day, coming or going, with four working each shift.

Then you switch to 12-hour shifts. Same number of employees, so six working each shift, still all passing each other in the course of the day. The difference is, they're each spending more time in the office and less time out of the office. 

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"For the life of us, we can’t figure out how that limits someone’s exposure when you still have the same number of employees in there," said Steve Mullen, president of the local union.

The union did agree to expanding the amount of overtime to 20 hours a week per worker on a temporary basis until more dispatchers could be hired and trained, but those were supposed to be flexible hours, not mandatory, he said.

And then this week, the county added to the burden by saying that the dispatchers will have to work mandatory overtime on top of their already 60-hour work weeks when necessary. If they don't, they could be subject to discipline or even fired.  

"At this point, the employees have a gun to their heads," Mullen said.

We get that everyone is being stretched thin at this point from the stress of the pandemic, between worries about their families and friends and trying to keep going in a stay-at-home world. And jobs don't get much more essential than 911 dispatchers and the first responders they work with. 

But the idea of first forcing dispatchers to be on the floor for 12 hours at a stretch five days a week, then saying they might have to log more hours on top of that, is priming the county for a disaster, not to mention a lawsuit from the union.

We understand that dispatchers often have long stretches of time with little to do as they wait for calls. We also know that when those calls come, they are often from people in desperate situations, confronted with a loved one in dire need of help.

A dispatcher at the end of a 12-hour shift would be stressed enough. We don't want to contemplate what would happen with a dispatcher who had been on the floor longer than that. 

The county has spent $1 million in the past few years to try to straighten out problems at the 911 center, including a $750,000 contract with New Jersey-based IXP Corp., before director Matthew Hobson took over in February. 

Yet the York County 911 Center continues to misuse its employees and violate its contract with them — and it's putting the health and welfare of everyone in the county who might need help in jeopardy.