Overdoing Overtime: a story of cops and gravediggers

Years ago, a coach for one of our daughter’s softball teams confided to us that, as a police detective who was about to retire, he was working as many hours of overtime as he could. It wasn’t that he wanted to work late into the night at a dangerous job. It was simply that he was legally feathering his retirement nest. At the time, New York City, like many others, had very liberal limits on the amount of overtime pay that could be included in final years on the job for the purposes of calculating a pension. More overtime in the last few years of employment could mean a dramatic increase in pension pay for the rest of his life.


As taxpayers, we were a little dubious. But since he was a friend, and a fan of our daughter’s play, we wished him the best of luck in toting up those extra hours.


In scanning audits from around the country, we’ve noticed that this particular use for overtime has come up frequently. But we’ve seen a shift in the emphasis of audits lately to ones that focus on overtime that is necessary because of reduced staffing. Sometimes, the employees aren’t even happy about getting paid a few more dollars in exchange for a diminishment in time at home with spouses and children.


In our blog post last week, we noted that a hiring freeze in Pennsylvania produced costs rather than savings for the Department of Corrections because of overtime for prison security. Report highlights from the Pennsylvania Budget & Finance Committee noted that in Fiscal Year 2016, the total cost of overtime to provide prison security was $105.3 million. Overtime amounted to nearly 12 percent of total security hours in 2016 up from 6.4 percent in 2010.


Although the Pennsylvania manpower shortage was substantially self-inflicted due to the hiring freeze, a number of governments are experiencing recruitment, hiring and retention problems in their police departments, sheriff’s offices and prisons. (In our Governing column in September, we covered hiring problems for police departments. In February last year, we wrote about human resource problems in jails and in November, 2014, we wrote about the shortage of correction officers.)


Hiring troubles and high overtime often go hand in hand. For several years, San Jose auditor Sharon Erickson has been shining a light on police hiring woes there. In a report to the city council last fall, she noted that overtime has grown in tandem with department vacancies. It tripled in the last seven years and peaked at $36 million in Fiscal Year 2016. Interestingly, the increased use of overtime has also resulted in an increase in sick leave usage, which then increases the need for still more overtime. Talk about a vicious circle.


In Syracuse, NY, an audit last fall found police overtime had doubled since 2012.  The audit targeted decreased manpower as the primary driver of greater overtime, though it also cited problems in tracking overtime usage and negotiated union rules which increased overtime hours. An audit in Buffalo found the police department there under-estimated the amount of overtime that would be used by officers by 40 percent in 2015 and 28 percent in 2014. It said that 25 percent of the Buffalo Police Department had earned more than $25,000 in overtime. A few days ago, Baltimore’s mayor called for an audit of police overtime there.


Of course, there are also other intriguing issues raised in audits that focus on overtime.


The most unusual audit – and audit controversy – we’ve seen recently was in Parkersburg, a small town in Butler County, Iowa. A state audit questioned $32,600 in overtime paid to the city administrator between 2009 and 2014. The audit stated that his position made the administrator ineligible for overtime based on the Fair Labor Standards Act. The city, with its population of 1,870 (as of the 2010 census), is disputing the auditor’s criticism, arguing that it has a legal opinion ruling that the city administrator has multiple city jobs that qualify him for overtime. According to the Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier, the city administrator also acts as “city clerk, public works director and cemetery sexton which includes digging graves.”

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