July 09, 2008
How much overtime is too much?

I have two questions regarding this front page story that says "Understaffing costs Houston taxpayers $150 million in overtime".

Local governmental agencies spent large sums on overtime last year, in part to compensate for their understaffed police forces, according to interviews and an analysis of payroll data.

Combined, the agencies spent about $150 million on overtime in 2007, or about 5 percent of their payrolls, according to a database of payroll records from the city, county and Houston schools, among other agencies.

The spending kept more police officers and sheriff's deputies patrolling streets and guarding jails, officials say, but it also has raised concerns about employee fatigue and morale.


The Houston Chronicle compiled detailed electronic payroll data on 81,000 employees at the Metropolitan Transit Authority, city of Houston, Harris County, Port of Houston Authority, Harris County Department of Education, Houston Community College and Houston Independent School District.

The records detail overtime, car allowances, bonuses and total annual pay. The data were collected under the Texas Public Information Act from the agencies, all of which receive property tax revenue from Harris County homeowners.

The Sheriff's Office, for example, spent more than $31 million on overtime, second only to the Houston Police Department, which has dealt with its own staffing shortages.

Dozens of deputies earned more than $50,000 in overtime last year, often doubling their salaries. Two who were paid $92,000 and $87,000 in overtime, respectively, worked 16-hour shifts five days a week. One got paid for a few 24-hour shifts, records show.

The HPD, which has placed a heavy focus on recruiting to increase the ranks, spent about $45 million on overtime, records show. Officials there plan to spend about $51 million over the next 12 months.

Much of the department's spending is funded by state and federal grants. The grants also boost traffic enforcement and extra policing in high-crime areas, police say.

"Unlike the private sector, the public sector has to leverage its limited work force by extending it through the use of overtime," said Joe Fenninger, HPD's deputy director for finance.

The Houston Fire Department and Houston ISD trailed the HPD and Sheriff's Office in overtime spending, with about $19 million and $10 million, respectively.

Reporter Matt Stiles also blogged about this story here. My first question is this: How much would these agencies be spending on overtime costs if they were all staffed at ideal levels? To say that overtime "costs Houston taxpayers $150 million" suggests to me that the "right" amount to spend on overtime is nothing, and I don't think that's realistic. Even at full staff, there will be circumstances that will require certain public employees to work extra hours. Is there a basis for comparison - say, a time in the past when staffing levels were higher across the board, or some other cities in America that are fully staffed - that can give us some idea what this baseline overtime budget might be? It would be nice to have a more realistic expecation of what we "should" be spending on this.

Point two is that if we were fully staffed across the board, and thus spending the minimum anount on overtime, we'd have higher payroll costs. How much more would the Sheriff, HPD, HFD, HISD, and so on be spending on salaries, benefits, and whatnot if they all had as many employees as they think they need and thus could cut overtime down as much as possible? It's quite possible that if we staffed up to drive down overtime costs, we might wind up spending more overall. If that's the case, then wbich would you prefer: Full staffing with minimal overtime, or less staff but more overtime? Is the goal to minimize costs no matter what, or just to minimize overtime? I'm not sure which is the right answer, but it's something we ought to think about. The right course of action to take from here isn't clear.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 09, 2008 to Local politics

It's probably cheaper to pay the overtime than hire new employees, assuming that benefits in the Sheriff's office are about average.

In any event, you're quite right about the overtime. The fully-staffed baseline for the Sheriff's office would have a considerable amount of overtime because staffing needs for a major police department are not uniform over time. There are always major events and things like natural disasters that generate a lot of overtime. To avoid overtime completely would require over-staffing and having lots of officers idle during the down periods.

What I'd be interested in seeing are the overtime rules. Are officers paid for actual time worked or are there other rules? I had a friend who worked for the USDA plant quarantine program in the 90s. These are the officers that inspect passengers and cargo for contraband plants and agricultural materials. He worked out of the Miami Int'l Airport and mostly did air cargo inspections. Their union rule was that every time they'd get called in to inspect an air shipment (mostly stuff like cargo shipments of cut flowers from Colombia) they would automatically earn 4 hours of overtime. My friend lived 5 minutes from the airport and a normal cargo inspection would take him 30-45 minutes so He'd be drawing 4 hours of overtime most evenings for what was actually 30-45 minutes of work. Over the course of a year his overtime wages exceeded his regular salary. But in point of fact, he was getting paid for 4x the number of overtime hours that he actually worked.

Posted by: Kent from Waco on July 9, 2008 9:14 PM

The Sheriff's Office doesn't typically get paid overtime for say, working two hours extra because you were stuck on the scene of a major crash on the north freeway.

The Paid overtime is coming out of the Jail, where officers sign up for 'k-time' and take on extra shifts so that the jail can meet the ridiculous 48:1 staffing ratio set by the state jail commission.

"Traditional" overtime earned by patrol officers and investigators etc is banked as comp time, and the deputies don't actually get paid for those hours until they exceed either 180 or 240 hours in their comp time bank. Of course most supervisors see deputies approaching the cap and make them take a comp day or two to burn off some of the hours.

I'd wager 90% of the Overtime reported in the chronicle is coming out of the jail.

HPD has some of those hours rules like Kent refers too... show up for court for 45 minutes, get 8 hours or some such nonsense.

Posted by: Trafficnerd on July 9, 2008 11:49 PM
Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)