SUNDAY EDITION | Huge overtime payouts continue as Louisville Me - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SUNDAY EDITION | Huge overtime payouts continue as Louisville Metro aims for savings

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Had Kenneth Simmons worked a normal 40-hour week, he would have earned about $45,000 a year, on average, during the last six years of his career as a jail officer for Louisville Metro Corrections. Instead, Simmons worked what he described as an “ungodly” amount of overtime, pushing his average pay from 2008 to 2013 above $89,000.

“If you would have asked me, in my first five or six years in Corrections, if I would ever be able to have the opportunity to make that much money … I’d have looked at you like you was crazy,” said Simmons, 48, who retired at the end of November. “I always thank God every single day that I had the opportunity to make the money that I did make.”

Figures made available through Mayor Greg Fischer’s Open Data initiative show Simmons earned just over $263,000 in overtime pay from 2008 to 2013 – as much as $70,000 in overtime in a single year, 2008, when his total pay was more than $111,000.

He is hardly the only city employee to have nearly doubled his or her pay – over many years – by working massive amounts of overtime, according to WDRB’s analysis of the data, which goes back to 2008.

·         Geraldine Grider, an emergency dispatcher with Louisville MetroSafe, earned more than $375,000 in overtime pay during the six-year period, pushing her total pay to an average of $113,000 annually. Her average base pay was about $47,000.

·         Damon Bailey, an equipment operator in Metro Public Works’ Solid Waste division, earned more than $249,000 in overtime pay, increasing his regular pay of about $45,000 a year to more than $86,000.

·         Michael Christensen, a Louisville Metro EMS paramedic, earned more than $245,000 in overtime, increasing his total pay to almost $134,000 in 2012 and to nearly $101,000 in 2013 despite working only seven months that year before retiring  Aug. 1. Christensen’s annual salary averaged about $61,000 during the six-year period, though his average total pay was about $99,000.

·         Richmond Booker, a Solid Waste division manager, earned an additional $244,000 in the six-year period before being reclassified to an exempt position this year. The overtime pay allowed Booker to boost his annual salary from about $48,000 to nearly $89,000.

The earnings of these employees highlight the challenges Fischer’s office faces in getting a handle on overtime spending, which the mayor made a priority a little more than two years ago.

In January 2012, Fischer’s office released a report showing 22 percent of metro government’s roughly 5,500 fulltime employees increased their base pay by at least 15 percent because of overtime.

Since then, metro government has renegotiated some union contracts to save money by, among other changes, eliminating a provision that for years had allowed employees to get overtime despite not actually working 40 hours in a week because they could count paid leave, such as vacation and sick time, as time worked.

Fischer also created an Office of Performance Improvement to monitor issues like overtime spending and work with departments to improve their efficiency. That has led to some successes – like a five percent cut in overtime hours in the EMS department over the last 12 months.

But the effort has yet to yield results citywide. Metro government’s spending on unscheduled overtime dipped by about $1.4 million, to $12.5 million, in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2013. Unscheduled overtime jumped back up to $14.3 million in the recently ended fiscal year.

Theresa Reno-Weber, chief of performance and technology in Fischer’s office, said unexpected factors caused overtime spending to rise again recently: a delayed recruit class for the city fire department, which created more vacancies; a winter in which Public Works crews had to deal with twice the average snow events; and extra police patrols prompted by youth violence at Waterfront Park in March.

Reno-Weber said the city’s increased focus on overtime will eventually lead to widespread savings, but it’s a “long, hard road we are trudging” that involves changing union contracts and getting departments to keep better tabs on their spending and to find ways to rework their daily operations.

“This is a culture change for metro government, that we are really paying so much attention this and that we are asking folks to change the way they are operating,” said Reno-Weber, who oversees the six-person performance office and its LouieStat, or Louisville Statistics, measurement portal.

Long days, and sleeping on the job

Some senior employees are able to work so much overtime because union contracts give them first dibs on the hours, and Kentucky’s pension system for state and local employees “basically encourages” workers to earn as much pay as possible in their final years before retirement, as Metro EMS director Neal Richmond said.

“Your last three years are what really determine your pension, so if you are about to retire you are going to be the person who is opting for that overtime,” he said in explaining why an employee like Christensen would work so much in his final years.

Simmons, the jail officer, earned about $94,000 annually in his final three years – about double his base pay.  (That included a payout of more than $7,000 for unused vacation at retirement.)

Simmons said he volunteered to work so much overtime to provide for his five children and four step children, he said, and “to build up my pension,” which he said is more than $3,000 a month.

In 2008, the year he earned more than $70,000, Simmons said he worked “almost…every single day of the week” – often double shifts of 16 consecutive hours before going home for only three or four hours of sleep and returning to work again eight hours after his previous shift ended.

Simmons was caught sleeping on the job five times since 2006 -- including about a month before he retired last year -- and served four suspensions, according to a review of his personnel file. In one instance in June 2008, jail documents linked Simmons’ heavy workload with his fatigue. According to a disciplinary report, Simmons told a captain who had caught him “snoring very loud” that he had “worked five doubles (consecutive 8-hour shifts) in a row.”

Simmons told WDRB it was “very hard to stay awake” and “keep your mind occupied” with no reading materials or other distractions allowed in the jail.

Asked if jail officials ever established a connection between Simmons’ sleeping on the job and long hours, Metro Corrections spokeswoman Lt. Endora Davis noted that management had no control over how much overtime could elect to work, and, because of his seniority, he got “99.9 percent” of the hours he signed up for.

Grider, the MetroSafe dispatcher, also works “a lot of 16-hour days,” she said in email to WDRB. (Emergency dispatchers and call-takers can work up to 16 consecutive hours before a mandatory 8-hour break, MetroSafe spokeswoman Jody Duncan said.)

Explaining why she chooses to work so much, Grider wrote: “I have seen in my lifetime elderly people who have to depend on the government and are expected to live off of $600 a month. I don't want to have to endure that in my retiring age, so I have planned ahead.”

Grider, who declined to speak directly to a reporter, is the only other high-earning employee who offered comments for this story. Christensen, Bailey and Booker could not be reached for comment.

In Solid Waste Management Services – the division of Metro Public Works that handles garbage, recycling and junk pickup – spokesman Harold Adams said simple management changes should cut down on “what can only be described as a lot of overtime” earned by Bailey, the equipment operator, and Booker, the manager.

The changes were implemented by Public Works Director Vanessa Burns, who took over about a year and a half ago, Adams said.

Until Burns’ reorganization earlier this year, Bailey had been one of only two “roll-off operators” in Solid Waste – meaning there were only two only employees who could operate a truck that picks up dumpsters. That meant a lot of opportunities to get extra hours, Adams said.

Now there are 18 “equipment operators” and “senior equipment operators” who can do that job, which should spread hours more evenly, he said.

Meanwhile, on June 23, Booker became a “manager” exempt from overtime, whereas he had been a non-exempt “supervisor,” Adams said. The reclassification increased his base salary from about $54,000 to about $62,000, city data shows.

Years ago, the city thought there were too many managers in the department and changed some jobs to rank-and-file status, Adams said.

“That created a situation where you had the unintended consequence of these supervisors now working just a tremendous amount of overtime,” Adams said.

“Both sides negotiated”

Policies that allow senior employees to work as much overtime as they want, even if written into union contracts, represent a “management failure,” said Janet Kelly, director of the Urban Studies Institute at the University of Louisville.

More evenly distributed overtime would cost taxpayers less because senior employees have lower base pay, and because pension payouts would not be inflated by unusually high earnings in final years before retirement, she said.

It’s difficult for the public to examine exactly how much overtime pay can boost a pension. Unlike pay on the job, retiree benefits aren’t subject to disclosure under the Kentucky Open Records Act, said Bill Thielen, executive director of Kentucky Retirement Systems.

Kelly said the current policies can be hard to change because workers who have paid their dues want the benefits others before them have enjoyed.

“Think about that senior officer who is trying to get as much overtime as possible. You can imagine them saying, ‘This is the way it’s been done for years, why are you taking it out on me?’” she said.

John Stovall, president of Teamsters Local 783 – which represents workers in several departments including Public Works, EMS and MetroSafe – said union contracts are too often blamed for the city’s overtime spending.

“It’s not like we took a gun in there; both sides negotiated. … Somehow or another it gets portrayed we’re the bad guys,” he said.

In fact, metro government could eliminate the need for a lot overtime by adding more rank-and-file positions or filling vacancies faster, Stovall said.

Stovall added that not all senior rank-and-file employees want the extra hours, and those who volunteer to fill voids should not be criticized.

“It makes them look bad, but it’s not their fault. The city set this up,” he said.

In her email to WDRB, Grider stressed that she “earn(s)” every extra dollar she makes dispatching 911 calls. “It is not given to me, I earn it. My job entails a lot of stress, commitment and liability.”

Simmons said his willingness to work huge amounts of overtime saved other Corrections officers – including some single mothers – from being forced to work extra hours that they did not want.

“I even had people come up and basically try to pay me to work overtime so they so they could be with their children,” he said.

At the same time, the 16-hour days “took years off my life” and strained his own relationship with his older children, Simmons said.

Some weeks, he got only three or four hours of sleep during the 8-hour break he would take between shifts. He gained weight, and nine months after leaving the job, he still has trouble getting a full night’s sleep.

“I’ve got two (grown) sons right now that don’t really want nothing to do with me because I chose working overtime instead of spending more time with them, and to this day I am paying for it,” he said.

Contract, policy changes

Davis, the Metro Corrections spokeswoman, said one way Simmons earned more than $70,000 of overtime in 2008 was by taking vacation, which previously counted as time worked, and claiming his work hours as overtime.

But in 2012, the Fischer administration signed new contracts with the unions representing MetroSafe, EMS and Corrections requiring members to actually work 40 hours in a week before claiming overtime.

While eliminating that help has helped, Corrections continues to struggle with filling vacancies and managing sick and vacation time – the conditions that create so many hours that need to be covered on overtime by officers like Simmons.

“Until we really get a handle on the best way to manage those issues, we’re probably not likely to see a big dent in overtime in Corrections,” said Daro Mott, deputy director in metro’s Office of Performance Improvement.

The 2012 contracts for EMS and MetroSafe also cut down on vacation accruals for new hires, which is eventually expected to lead to fewer hours that need to be covered with employees on overtime.

“They are coming after a lot of stuff,” Stovall said, describing efforts by the city to glean savings from contract changes.

MetroSafe’s current contract with the Teamsters union took away double pay – as opposed to time and a half – for hours worked on a seventh consecutive day as of June 30, 2013.

In 2008, when Grider earned a high of $124,000, city pay records show many of her 16-hour days came on her seventh day of work.

Ending the double pay resulted in about 5,600 hours being paid at the normal rate or at time-and-a-half instead of double in the just-ended fiscal year, according to figures provided by Duncan.

That helped MetroSafe and its parent Emergency Management Agency reduce unscheduled overtime expenses by 9 percent, to $710,450, for the year ended June 30, 2014, according to data provided the mayor’s Office of Performance Improvement.

Of the seven metro departments that account for the most unplanned overtime, Metro EMS made the most progress in the last year, achieving an 11 percent reduction in spending during 12 months ended June 30, 2014 – to $2.3 million.

Richmond said that’s mainly the result of new contract language prohibiting vacation time counting as hours worked, and a sick-leave points system the department instituted with the backing of the Teamsters union.

The points system discourages workers from calling in sick on desirable off days, like before a planned vacation or holiday weekend, Richmond said.

The department will eventually realize more overtime savings as employees hired after the 2012 contract went into effect get less vacation, Richmond said. New hires will start with 3 weeks of combined vacation and holiday leave, down from 5, and accrue up to about 6.5 weeks after 16 years in the system, down from just over 8 weeks for senior members, according to the contract.

Richmond said a system in which senior employees get almost seven weeks of vacation, not including holidays, was “unsustainable” because it created so many vacancies that needed to be filled with overtime.

At the same time, he wonders if continuing to cut benefits could be counter-productive because it will make the jobs less attractive and harder to fill.

“There is a tremendous shortage of qualified people out there, especially in paramedics,” Richmond said. “So on one hand, we are fixing the problem. On the other hand, we are building a new problem for the future.”

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