The recent attention given to skyrocketing public sector overtime costs deserves taxpayer scrutiny. As citizens poured over salary information available via an online database, jaws dropped as scores of public employees easily racked up over $50,000 in overtime, with many actually doubling their take home pay. The database provided hundreds of examples of seemingly over-compensated employees. This data is alarming, but taxpayer wrath should not be directed solely at the recipients of these huge checks.
Overtime is a valuable tool to address periodic peaks in demand. It is cheaper than hiring another employee for short-term periods, since a hiring manager does not have to pay out a second set of benefits, and also saves corresponding recruiting and training costs. However, if “periodic” becomes “standard operating procedure,” then the valuable tool becomes cost-ineffective.
In addition to labor cost overruns, astute managers are worried about fatigue with their team members. The quality of work can decrease, safety is jeopardized and employee morale can sink rapidly. Now imagine someone whose responsibility involves saving lives or facing dangerous situations: Fatigue-induced lapses in judgment or delays in reaction can literally mean life or death.
One shocking local example found in the database involves a Vallejo police corporal who racked up 2,400 hours of overtime in 2013. Considering that a typical salaried employee works 2,000 hours a year, this hardworking fellow consistently worked 80-hour weeks.
On first glance, this seems as if the supervisors were not paying attention. Having a public safety officer consistently work double shift does not benefit the community, nor the officer, in the long term. In work environments I have participated in, working an employee at a consistent 100 percent overtime would surely earn the manager a visit from human resources. Additionally, in some sectors, excessive overtime can be against the law. If a professional truck driver worked 57 hours in a 72-hour period like our hard-working corporal, they would face civil fines and penalties.
Even with all the shocking employee payout data seen in the database, many questions remain unasked. Do the increases in overtime funds reflect more overtime hours worked or do they reflect a higher overtime rate? Since overtime pay is based on regular pay, perhaps the base pay is abnormally high and is merely compounded when paying overtime?
What would the payroll be if the department was staffed at full levels? If a department that should have 10 people has a million-dollar payroll, that equals $100,000 per employee. If the same department gets slashed to five people, but still has a million-dollar payroll, each person is making $200,000 a year, which may shock some observers, yet the overall budget remains the same.
Should management-level employees be exempt vs.non-exempt employees? In the private sector, as one progresses along the management ladder, charging for every little bit of overtime becomes a thing of the past. Is that the way things work in the public sector?
Another unasked question: What exactly are they doing during the overtime? Is it vital specialized labor, or is it administrative paperwork? Could any of their workload be transferred to a less-specialized public employee, or subcontracted out, or even dropped altogether?
Excessive overtime is a red flag in any organization, be it private or public sector. It indicates fundamental issues within the organization, whether it be a poor organizational structure, poor workload distribution, inadequate hiring and recruitment strategies, or some combination of the three. Simply throwing scarce payroll dollars at the problem will harm our communities in the long run.
Brian Thiemer is chairman of the Solano County Libertarian Party. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.