Cashing In After Isaac: High water, high pay in Plaquemines Parish

Plaquemines Parish is looking to change its policy on disaster-related pay after top managers cashed in on Hurricane Isaac work.

Plaquemines Parish was by far the hardest-hit area directly along the Louisiana coastline.  As the storm hung out in the Gulf of Mexico in late August, shifting directions, surge projections went higher.

Levees on the East Bank of Plaquemines Parish didn't stand a chance.  Homes and businesses took on 12 to 14 feet of water.  Emergency crews and volunteers rescued people for days.  A mandatory evacuation remained in place for a week.

Six months later, the recovery continues, and now comes paying for it.

"We're not spending money that we're not confident of getting reimbursed," said Director of Operations Scott Lott.

That statement came as Lott recently explained to the Parish Council how Isaac recovery money is being spent.

Among the expenses is a $1.5 million bill to cover the cost of what parish workers were paid during the storm.

"When I first saw the figure, I and a lot of people were shocked at the amount of money, so I ordered an investigation into the jobs done and why they were done," says Parish President Billy Nungesser.

He isn't the only one questioning who cashed in after Isaac.

"I think you see people were shocked, not favorably impressed by the payments.  Again, this has nothing to do with the quality of work they did," says Brooke Duncan, a local attorney who specializes in labor and employment law.

Duncan says," There are other ways to skin the cat than to pay overtime to highly-paid local officials."

Nungesser says the overtime rules are normally very strict.

"Before Isaac, under normal circumstances, there is no overtime in Plaquemines Parish that doesn't get approved by my office," says Nungesser.

During and after the storm, it was a different story.

Turns out, the parish has one of the most generous emergency pay plans in the region.  It pays double time to essential personnel for all hours worked during a mandatory evacuation.

The parish pays time-and-a-half for anything beyond an 8-hour workday, leading up to an evacuation and after the order is lifted.  That applies to all workers, even those normally exempt from making overtime.

Duncan questions why salaried employees are included in that pay policy.  "The law doesn't require that," says Duncan. "The whole idea is an exempt employee is just that. They're exempt from OT because they receive a guaranteed salary."

That brings us to Scott Lott and Byron Williams.  Both salaried directors make $84,000 a year.

Lott's Isaac overtime totaled more than $21,000, a fourth of his annual salary. He was paid 131 hours of double time for the eight days of Isaac, during which he was cleaning storm drains, delivering food to workers, assessing damages, cutting trees and clearing roadways.

Nungesser says it was work that needed to be done.  "In those circumstances, you see stuff that needs to be done and it's hard to tell them absolutely not.  But, they are in management positions and have to use their best judgment," says Nungesser.

Public Works Director Byron Williams' Isaac overtime totaled more than $40,000, half his yearly salary.

"And I'm not happy with that," says the parish president. "I put Byron in a leadership position and that will not happen again."

Williams' payroll documents show 160 hours of double time the week of Isaac, when he was saving people and animals, assessing floodwaters, taking phone calls.

Nungesser says, while it does seem excessive, Williams didn't stop and didn't sleep. In fact, his time sheet says he worked three days straight, 24 hours a day during the storm -- plus 20 hours the Monday before Isaac. That's 92 hours of work, with only four hours of downtime.

Asked if that was physically possible, Nungesser said, "They probably did lay down and sleep a few hours. We had cots set up in hallways, so we could all sleep a few hours. We're going to look at that."

The chief parish engineer, who makes $87,000 a year, racked up $15,040 in overtime.

The homeland security manager for Plaquemines Parish earned $11,973 extra.

But one case that raises even bigger questions is the overtime paid out to Stephen Braud, who was the lead parish attorney when Isaac hit.

He was already making $80 an hour, but he was paid 87 hours of double time the week of Isaac for working on emergency services contracts.  Braud's total Isaac overtime take was just shy of $17,000.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you I'm happy about it. I'm absolutely not," says Nungesser.

Duncan says an attorney earning overtime is almost unheard of.  "Extremely unusual… The Federal Labor Standards Act specifically exempts certain professions from receiving overtime, or being required to receive overtime," says Duncan. "Those include attorneys, doctors and a few others."

Nungesser says he didn't approve the Isaac overtime. "I didn't see it until after the fact. I was a little surprised, as you are, so he's no longer here," says Nungesser. "I'm not going to beat a dead horse. I'm not happy with the amount of overtime."

Braud's last day on the job was October 31.

Nungesser says while the excessive overtime was technically justified under civil service rules, and 90 percent of it is reimbursable by FEMA, he believes the policy needs to change.  At the very least, he wants to limit the number of hours worked in a day during a disaster and make sure everyone has specific job assignments.

Attorney Brooke Duncan suggests compensatory time, which is time off for extra hours worked. He says sometimes FEMA reimbursement can cloud local governments' judgment.

Duncan says, "Clearly when disasters strike, and long hours become necessary and local officials are required to go out in the field and work… I'm sure there must be a temptation on the part of local government to say we're going to get reimbursed by some other source, FEMA or someone else."

"But that's no reason to waste tax dollars, because it's still tax dollars, federal tax dollars," says Nungesser. "So we need to make sure the tasks that we're out there doing are to protect life and property, and that it's being done in a fiscally responsible way."

Plaquemines Parish Civil Service Department would have to change the emergency overtime rules.

Right now, the total estimated cost of Plaquemines Parish recovery from Hurricane Isaac is $80 million.  FEMA is expected to pay for 90 percent of that total cost.