Cashing In After Isaac: Local parishes handle emergency overtime differently

For the first time during a disaster, New Orleans city workers normally exempt from earning overtime racked up thousands of extra dollars in emergency overtime during and after Hurricane Isaac.

"The big picture here is, in an emergency, there are essential personnel required to be here 24-7 who are not able to be with their families, don't get time off, required to be onsite," says Andy Kopplin, the city's chief administrative officer.

A 2010 civil service rule change requested by the administration and approved by the City Council during the BP oil spill allowed all employees who worked overtime during Isaac to get paid for the extra hours.  Even dozens of members of Mayor Landrieu's executive staff earned emergency overtime.

"It's understandable why these employees would not be eligible for overtime pay. It's because their salaries are already high salaries, like six-figure salaries," says former city worker Randolph Scott.

Deputy Mayor Kopplin earned an extra $14,000. He already makes $179,000 a year.  Every other deputy mayor also cashed in.

Health Director Karen DeSalvo got paid about $17,000 in both overtime and emergency pay.

"If they were doing emergency work in the city at a time when we had money, that would be one thing," says Nick Felton of the New Orleans Fire Fighters Association, a union group.

He's especially hot about the overtime money doled out to the higher-ups, especially at a time when the Fire Department's 2013 budget is being cut.

Friday Felton let City Council members know the membership isn't happy about top aides in the administration getting paid overtime, when he claims some firefighters were not.

"During Hurricane Isaac, it wasn't important enough to have firefighters on duty. When my shift was over, every person on my shift, they sent us home, during the storm. They said it's not that bad, go home," said Felton.  "They sent our shift home, said don't need the higher overtime.

"Historically we have always been on duty during a storm," Felton continued. "They did tell us to make sure we made it back for our next shift.  But the guys at the top, they were just raking it in, putting more money in their pockets.  We think that's horrible.  That's horrendous."

Council members did not address Felton's comments.

The city says the additional pay was justified, even to the Mayor's top aides, given the amount of hours they worked during and after Isaac.

Meanwhile, we wanted to see how other parishes handled Hurricane Isaac, in terms of paying executives in their administrations and department heads.

In Jefferson Parish, where there was flooding and damage from Grand Isle to Lafitte, hundreds of civil service employees earned over $3 million in overtime.  But it didn't apply to 55 higher ranked, salaried workers.

"Well, you never want to take advantage of an emergency situation. We just didn't feel that was appropriate," says Parish CAO Chris Cox.

He says those salaried employees never earn overtime, even during a declared disaster.

"We have very good employees, both civil service and unclassified who do their jobs day in and day out and don't expect anything extra," says Cox.  "They're paid a salary and that's what they earn. For those who worked a lot of hours during Isaac, we decided to give them some comp time for their hard work as a token of our appreciation."

Cox says the amount that comp time costs the parish may be reimbursed by FEMA, up to 75 percent.

In St. Tammany Parish, also hard hit with flooding from Slidell to Madisonville, Parish President Pat Brister says more than 300 essential personnel worked the emergency, to the tune of $439,248 in overtime from August 26 until September 3.

Like New Orleans, St Tammany also pays department heads and others who normally don't make overtime, during a declared emergency.

CAO Bill Oiler, who makes $153,000 a year, earned about $10,600 extra because of Isaac.

First Deputy CAO Kim Salter also made roughly an additional $10,000.  Second Deputy CAO Gina Campo earned more than $6,600 in Isaac overtime.

"These people go above and beyond in my mind and they certainly deserve the OT and they're making decisions every minute, decisions that in some cases are life and death," says Brister.

Brister says the emergency overtime policy has been in place since June 2000 and it was put into place specifically based on FEMA's reimbursement policy.

In St. John Parish, which was inundated by floodwaters after Hurricane Isaac, there is also a policy in place to pay all employees overtime in an emergency. St. John Parish paid out $373,000 during the emergency, including overtime pay for hourly and salaried employees.