Zurik: S&WB's overtime policy means millions down the drain

Published: Nov. 20, 2014 at 8:01 PM CST
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Almost three years ago, in the summer of 2010, we detailed sky-high overtime earnings for some Sewerage and Water Board employees.

"To have overtime at these rates just is a red flag that something needs to be evaluated," said Janet Howard, head of the Bureau of Governmental Research, in our 2010 report. She called the overtime payments a huge waste of resources.

Employees earned more in overtime than their base salary. The Sewerage and Water Board gave several employees with a base salary of $60,000 almost $80,000 in overtime, bringing their total compensation to $160,000 a year. Sewerage and Water Board Executive Director Marcia St. Martin promised changes.

"While we say 'thank you for doing a good job for us and thank you for being available, no matter what time of day or night there is a weather-related event,' it's not how we want to be able to continually maintain the operation," St. Martin told us in 2010.

But our research shows the overtime has not just continued; in some ways, it's gotten worse.

Councilwoman-at-Large Stacy Head warns that New Orleans citizens need to pay close attention.

"When I saw that story and I read the information that was behind it, I used that to try to talk to the Sewerage and Water Board about reducing the amount of overtime," Head told us recently. "And unfortunately it looks like they've not reduced the overtime, But in fact it's increased dramatically, which is not a good trend."

In 2008, the Sewerage and Water Board paid $8,326,291 in overtime pay to employees. In 2009 it paid $8,949,634. Then we did our story and the numbers went down: $7,362,597 in 2010, $7,956,504 in 2011.

But in the following year, 2012, overtime shot up to its highest level in the last five years -- the Sewerage and Water Board paid employees a total of $9,181,359 in overtime.

Head said, "We have highlighted a glaring problem, not a debatable issue. I don't think there's anyone, any business person who will debate that an overtime rate growing like this, especially when you look at the individual employee issues, is a good thing. It certainly is something that we knew about as a board, we should have addressed, and it's just gone unchecked."

The highest overtime earner in 2012 was plant engineer Renfred Muse. He made $63,558.39 in overtime, added to his base salary of $53,275.16 for a total of about $124,000.

Senior maintenance technician Clarence Plains made the second-most overtime, $57,978.89. He has a base salary of $40,823.68. Combined, he made $98,802.57.

In our 2010 story, we noted that 21 employees made more in overtime than their base salary. That's grown; in 2012, the number was 24.

Head tells us the Sewerage and Water Board has been aware of this, at least since she's been a member. "The response is, I get information," she said. "They're very good about giving me information, the staff is. But there don't seem to be any directives from the board for change."

Doing the math, it means someone like Renfred Muse would have worked about 1,700 hours of overtime last year. Clarence Plains worked around 2,300 hours -- that's an average of 44 hours of overtime a week, on top of his regular work week.

Head noted, "A lot of the jobs at the Sewerage and Water Board, it's backbreaking labor. And that's not sustainable."

While overtime at the Sewerage and Water Board has increased, overtime at City Hall has dropped significantly, from $29 million in 2009 to $12 million in 2011 under the Landrieu administration.

"The administration has taken great pride in the fact that they have encouraged every department to reduce their overtime," Head told us.

The fire department has cut overtime in half, from $5,701,122 to $2,513,476. The police department reduced OT by nearly $9 million, from $14,262,912 to $5,446,169.

If first responders can and other departments such as Public Works can successfully slash their overtime budgets, why can't the S&WB?

There's more. The Sewerage and Water Board also pays about $1.3 million a year in standby or on-call pay. Here's how the executive director described that type of pay three years ago.

"So you're available to be called in if there is a need that's unexpected and you need to respond to it," St. Martin told us.

Last week we asked for a copy of the on-call pay policy and received guidelines that were typed out in 1984. The mayor at the time was Dutch Morial.

"That is news to me, and I'm glad you're bringing that to our attention." Head said. "The fact that the policy of the Sewerage and Water Board hasn't been reconsidered since before I graduated from high school is not a good thing."

But the policy may also be against the city's civil service rules. The Civil Service Commission told us by email that an employee's freedom would have to be severely restricted in order to be considered eligible for on-call or standby pay. So if employees have the freedom to go from place to place and answer a call or page when it's time to report to work, they wouldn't be eligible for standby pay.

So the Sewerage and Water Board may be paying employees for standby pay when they're not allowed to.

The Sewerage and Water Board had 14 employees who each made at least $20,000 in standby pay last year.

"Just exposing the problem, and even an acknowledgement of the problem, doesn't necessarily result in a change of the system," Head said. "That's what we've got to make sure that we mandate."

Stacy Head says she hopes this story gets customers' attention.

A rate hike for the Sewerage and Water Board was recently approved. Customers will eventually see their bills doubled. Head doesn't want to see that money going to standby or overtime pay -- pay that's jumped nearly $2 million in the last two years.

Head told us, "It's what we are lacking in so many parts of government in New Orleans. We're lacking the highly functioning day-to-day operations. And those are the things that those of us who live in this city, who are willing to do anything just about, because we love it so much… that is what we want. I want a day-to-day functioning Sewerage and Water Board. I want a day-to-day functioning basic city government. And we had not had that. Yet we rewarded the Sewerage and Water Board with the doubling of their rates."

The Sewerage and Water Board did not respond to our request for an interview.