Cashing In After Isaac: Best of both worlds in St. Bernard - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports, Social

Cashing In After Isaac: Best of both worlds in St. Bernard

Hurricane Isaac pounds St. Bernard Parish in August 2012. Hurricane Isaac pounds St. Bernard Parish in August 2012.

For the past six months, FOX 8 has uncovered excessive overtime payouts during Hurricane Isaac to department heads and top executives in local government.  As a result of some fat paychecks, New Orleans and Plaquemines Parish both say their policy needs to change.

As another hurricane season approaches, we focus on St. Bernard Parish, where there are still sporadic signs of hurricane damage -- but much of it dates back seven and a half years, when Katrina decimated the area.

During Hurricane Isaac last August, most homes inside the levee protection system fared well. Outside the levee protection system, Isaac drove a 12-foot storm surge into Delacroix. Hopedale, Shell Beach and Yscloskey also saw damage.

Essential parish workers were required to put in long hours the week of the storm.  But for salaried employees, the pay plan was much different than what they saw during Katrina.

In 2005 and 2006, St. Bernard Parish paid millions of dollars in overtime.  Salaried parish administrators, normally exempt from making overtime, earned time and a half for hours worked.

The parish council changed that rule in 2006, right before now-Parish President Dave Peralta was hired as Chief Administrative Officer.

Peralta says, "It was changed to reflect that salaried employees or exempt employees would not receive time and a half any longer."

Instead, during a disaster, they're paid at a regular hourly rate for all hours worked and even those not worked.

"Usually in those times, there are four to five hours a day that you have to stand down, take a break or rest," says Peralta. "During that period of time, yes, they are compensated because they're not allowed to leave."

On top of that, they can also receive additional time off and, in the case of Isaac, salaried workers were awarded four comp days, in addition to getting paid.

"They get double basically, because they get additional leave if other employees are excused from work, which they often will be. These folks were getting straight time plus additional leave time. Not bad," says Brooke Duncan, III, a local labor and employment attorney.

Duncan has evaluated the different emergency overtime pay policies in area parishes. Referring to St. Bernard's policy, he says, "It's a fairly generous package.  Again, not saying that the work they did wasn't highly valuable, but even comp time has a cost to the parish. All that needs to be added up to see what is the total outlay."

In St. Bernard, the highest-paid employee the week of Isaac was CAO Jerry Graves, who earns about $93,000 a year.  He made a little more than $5,000 extra that week for working an additional 114 hours.  

Graves got paid 24 hours a day, four days that week. The four comp days he received are worth about $1,430.

Director of Public Works Hillary Nunez, who earns $85,000 a year, made an extra $3,900 for working an additional 96 hours the week of Isaac.  His comp time is valued at a little over $1,300.

And John Rahaim, manager of the Office of Emergency Preparedness, got paid an additional $3,000 for almost 99 extra hours that week. The parish awarded him four comp days worth $960.

Peralta says the comp days aren't a sure thing, though.  "The comp days are at the discretion of the parish president because I may or may not be able to allow them to take it off, depending on the volume of work created after a storm, but also through the rest of the year," says Peralta. "It just may not be feasible."

Our focus on how other parishes handle disaster pay began six months ago.  FOX 8 first uncovered exorbitantly high payouts after Isaac to deputy mayors in New Orleans, who all make on average more than $150,000 a year.

The six top aides to Mayor Mitch Landrieu collectively raked in more than $100,000 in emergency pay and overtime, because of a 2010 rule change that largely went unnoticed.

"If FEMA didn't reimburse the city, the city essentially... we would have had some serious layoffs," said Robert Hagmann, a Civil Service Department staffer.

The Civil Service Commission is now considering changing the rule again to limit that extra pay for higher-paid managers during emergencies.

Jefferson Parish doesn't pay anything extra to department heads or those on salary during declared emergencies, saying that salaried workers are expected to put in longer hours. But they do receive up to a week of comp time, depending on how much they worked.

In St. Tammany Parish, the disaster overtime policy for salaried workers, in place since 2000, is simple. They get paid time and a half for every hour worked over their normal 35 to 40 hour week.

Parish President Pat Brister agrees with the policy.  "These people go above and beyond in my mind and they certainly deserve the OT," says Brister. "They are making decisions every minute, decisions that could be life or death."

Plaquemines Parish is also looking at possible changes after one top manager earned $40,000 in overtime during Isaac, half his annual salary.

Parish President Billy Nungesser told FOX 8 in February, "When I first saw the figure, I and a lot of people were shocked at the amount of money, so I ordered an investigation."

In that parish, essential personnel get paid double time for all hours worked during any mandatory evacuation.  They earn time and a half for extra hours worked before and after a mandatory evacuation.

"It just goes to show a hodgepodge of pay practices in local parishes and how they account for people called in for emergencies," says Duncan.

Peralta says every parish is unique and he too has no plans to change the disaster pay plan. "We're different in a lot of different areas," says Peralta. "Circumstances tend to dictate our laws, even on a national level."

While change is on the way in a couple of parishes, Duncan says, from a best practices standpoint, more uniformity is warranted since disasters seem never-ending in southeast Louisiana.

"Here we are about to start another hurricane season," says Duncan. "It's not a bad time to do the calculations. Is it better to pay for the time or give comp time off?"

At least for now in St. Bernard Parish, the answer is both.

Federal law says salaried exempt employees are not entitled to any overtime, so parish governments aren't required to pay it unless it is part of their local policy.

During Hurricane Isaac, St. Bernard Parish paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars for overtime.  75 percent of the total has been reimbursed by FEMA.

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