A troubling but perhaps unavoidable trend seems to be taking hold in state government that may be giving politicians and taxpayers alike a skewed impression of how effectively budget makers are coping with hard times.
That trend is in overtime paid to state workers — and possibly to employees on virtually all level of government.
According to a report by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli’s office, overtime earnings at state agencies rose nearly 11 percent in 2012 to $529 million. Overtime has been on the rise since 2009.
“State agencies spent nearly $52 million more on overtime in 2012 than the year before for nearly 14.5 million hours of overtime,” DiNapoli said.
“We found seven agencies with more than 25 percent of employees working overtime to meet their responsibilities. New York state policy requires limiting overtime to a minimum, and I urge all agencies to ensure that this expense is reduced whenever possible.”
But is it possible? If it is, DiNapoli’s report serves as a vital reminder for all department heads to keep a sharp and frugal eye on all overtime in their jurisdictions.
However, if the additional overtime is merely a necessary reaction to a reduced payroll to meet unreachable budget expectations, the public has been deceived. Politicians can crow about their wisdom in crafting an affordable spending plan in very lean times, when in fact the daily conduct of business requires far more than is contained in austere budget figures.
For example, the report found three agencies — those that operate large institutional facilities — with steep increases in 2012, accounting for 67.3 percent of overtime hours statewide: the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, the Office of Mental Health and the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
The Department of Corrections, as we all know in this prison-heavy area, requires a certain number of people on duty at all times in order to ensure safety, inmate against inmate, and more importantly, inmate against correction officer. The security of officers must be the department’s first order of business.
Of course, if officers are manipulating work conditions to build unnecessary overtime, they must be called to account. But, more fundamentally, if more staff is truly needed, it must be provided, instead of keeping a dangerously low census just to enhance the budget picture.
There is this consideration: Paying an employee time and a half is almost always less expensive than hiring another employee, who must be paid benefits, as well as wages. Benefits generally cost at least half again the cost of salary or hourly wage.
We trust DiNapoli’s report will shine new light on these factors and force amendments to an overtime situation that seems to be raising concerns.