Overtime pay is an easy target – but why is there so much to begin with?

This morning I turned on the local news and saw a report on the amount of overtime pay that the state university system was paying every year.  It’s an impressive figure – some people are more than tripling their salaries because of it.  I’ve also seen a number of other reports on it in various newspapers, as well as calls to reduce or completely stop it.   At the same time, I see a lot of calls to cut the state workforce.    We’re in a budget crisis, so both of those are obvious targets for cost-cutting.   It makes sense, right?  Well, maybe.

I have no doubt there are abuses of it.   In any large system, and New York State government is a large system, there are going to be people who game the system.   People who will come up with “reasons” why they had to work more than their normal time, why they “had” to work a holiday, or put down more than they actually worked.   Those are abuses of the system, they cost taxpayers money, and by all means, we should put a stop to them.  But while we’re doing that, we should also be looking at why some areas have so much overtime.

In some cases, it’s quite simply this:  There weren’t enough people to do the job.  Previous state cut-backs in the workforce, added responsibilities without corresponding staffing, and an inability to fill open positions creates  situations that require overtime in order to do the job.   If I’m at a facility that requires 24/7 staffing,  I need 4.2 people per 40 hour slot to cover that, without overtime.   If I have 5 slots I need 21 people.  If I have 20 people, that means 40 hours a week overtime pay.  I could get creative, and use only 4 people for some time slots, or even three.  There might be a slow time – I might not need 5 people on the night  shift, I can make do with three.  That’s great, even laudable – until the day comes when your strength level is cut below even that.  Then once again you’re back into a situation where overtime is going to be needed.

What happens if there’s no overtime?  Something is going to have to go undone.  Tasks are going to get dropped,  maintenance will slide, and other things that used to be considered “normal’ or “part of the service” are going to disappear.  There’s no time to do them, and there’s not enough people.   Before we do a blanket condemnation of overtime, and at the same time advocate for cutting the state workforce, we should start looking at where we’ve made too many cuts in the past.  It might be far better to start shifting positions, or even adding them in some areas – as a cost-cutting measure.

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