The Austin American Statesman reported that Austin Police Department paid officers nearly $2.5 million in overtime last year during weeks they also took vacation and other leave. This was allowed because of a policy that has bumped up overtime costs.
The practice â€” unlike that in most private businesses and other city departments â€” allows officers to receive overtime pay even when they have not worked more than 40 hours. The rule essentially lets them take vacation leave for time-and-a-half pay.
Nearly every Austin officer used vacation, compensatory time or holiday leave and received overtime in the same week at least once in 2005, according to an analysis of city payroll records.
Others did so much more frequently, including 13 officers who took leave but were paid overtime during 20 or more of 52 weekly pay periods. Three of the officers were among the highest paid in the department, earning six-figure salaries because of overtime wages.
The city’s contract with the police union allows the practice, which has been in place for five years and has no limits on how frequently officers can use leave and earn overtime in the same week.
The city would have saved about $592,000 last year by starting the overtime clock only after an employee reached 40 hours on duty, according to City Manager Toby Futrell.
Human resources experts said most private industries do not pay overtime until employees have worked at least 40 hours a week. The City of Austin also doesn’t pay its other employees â€” except firefighters â€” overtime unless they first work 40 hours.
Futrell was involved in negotiating the 2001 contract as an assistant city manager and approved the 2004 contract as city manager. She said she now thinks the practice should be reviewed.
“What I am concerned about in terms of an internal policy is that we have created a system where some of our employees are treated differently than others,” she said last week. “There is something inherently problematic for me in this tiered system of benefits and rewards that we have in our organization.”
City officials created a database showing the frequency with which officers receive overtime and leave pay in the same week at the request of the Austin American-Statesman, which has spent several months reviewing the department’s overtime expenses.
Last month, the newspaper reported that the bill for overtime for routine patrols has increased 468 percent during the past five years, hitting $3.9 million last year. City officials have said the expense is necessary to meet staffing goals. They say those goals helped lead to a drop in violent crime and Austin’s ranking last year by the FBI as the third-safest U.S. city.
Overall, the department’s overtime budget has risen from $4.9 million in 2001 to $10.3 million last year. The money is used to help pay for anything from court appearances when officers are off-duty to patrols for special events, such as Mardi Gras on Sixth Street.
Futrell said city officials had not previously calculated the cost of officers combining leave â€” sick time is not included â€” and overtime in the same week.
She said she and other city and department officials are now trying to determine whether they should change the policy when the union contract expires in two years, or immediately restrict how often officers can get overtime and vacation in the same week.
Mike Sheffield, president of the Austin Police Association, said he thinks officers would stop taking extra shifts if they receive only regular wages, and staff levels could drop dramatically.
The department routinely uses overtime to make sure it has eight of 10 officers assigned to any shift on the street.
Sheffield said he also is angry that the department’s use of overtime is under scrutiny and that had the city hired enough officers to fully staff the department â€” officials last month estimated they were at least 80 officers short â€” its overtime expenses would not have soared.
“(Officers) are being made to feel like it is their fault for volunteering to work all this overtime,” he said. “What we are going to do is look at ways to penalize that police officer out here on the street by saying, ‘If you take vacation, it is your fault that you are now coming in and making overtime.’ ”
An industry trend?
Beginning overtime pay after employees work 40 hours a week is typical for most businesses and is required under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
However, David Fortney, a Washington, D.C. labor attorney and consultant for the Society of Human Resource Management, said some industries have begun loosening overtime standards for employees because of demand, paying them time-and-a-half even if they use vacation or sick leave in the same week. Nursing and law enforcement are among them, he said.
“Often times, it is a labor-market determination,” Fortney said.
The practice of allowing police officers to earn overtime the same week they use vacation and other leave is not unusual across Texas and the United States, experts said.
Some cities, including Houston and San Antonio, also pay overtime if officers call in sick during the same pay period.
However, other cities â€” including Dallas â€” have ended the practice. The Dallas Police Department until last year paid officers overtime even if they called in sick or used vacation. It no longer does so unless they are on duty at least 40 hours.
“Employers who take it away, in the end, it bites them,” said Ron DeLord, president of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, a group representing 15,000 law officers. “Every time they put a call out and say, ‘Can someone stay over?’, nobody is going to want to stay if they’ve got a day coming off.”
Dallas police spokesman Gil Cerda said the department has not reviewed their change to see whether officers are now less likely to accept extra shifts on weeks when they have taken leave because they have not seen any indication it is a problem.
The Austin police union first bargained for the provision in its labor contract in 2001 and successfully sought to keep it in a more recent agreement two years ago. Under that contract, Austin police officers get almost four weeks of vacation a year, and much of that can carry over from year to year.
Futrell said Austin firefighters in 1999 changed the way their overtime was calculated to allow them to use vacation and other leave in the same week. The American-Statesman has requested but not yet received information showing the frequency with which firefighters use leave and receive overtime in the same weekly pay period.
Futrell said the city estimated the policy’s cost during 2001 police contract negotiations, but she said she doesn’t remember what the analysis showed.
Sheffield said that during the 2001 negotiations, he and other union representatives were concerned about staffing levels and wanted to give officers an incentive to work overtime.
He said they again bargained for the provision in 2004 because the department planned to reduce the number of cadet classes, a move they thought would lead to a further officer shortage.
“This was about getting people to volunteer (to fill shifts),” Sheffield said. “We demonstrated why it was in the best interest of both sides.”
‘We have families’
According to the payroll analysis, 19 percent of the department’s overall 359,911 vacation hours in 2005 were taken in a week in which officers were paid overtime.
Meanwhile, about 70 percent of the department’s overall overtime was paid to officers who did not take any leave in the same week.
The analysis showed that more than half of the 1,106 officers who used vacation and got overtime in the same week did so fewer than five times.
The newspaper requested interviews with 13 officers who worked overtime and took leave in the same week 20 times or more. One officer agreed to discuss the policy.
Internal affairs Sgt. Clarence Jamail, who last year worked in the department’s vehicular homicide unit, said his $9,595 in overtime on weeks he also took leave was from getting called out â€” often in the middle of the night â€” and from an increase in clerical duties.
He said his wife also was pregnant last year and that he often used leave for her doctor’s appointments.
Jamail said he thinks officers should get overtime if they use leave that same week.
“We understand in law enforcement, we have higher expectations, but at the same time, we have personal lives and families and have to deal with those situations as they come up,” he said.
Futrell said she fears that changing the policy could have unintended consequences: Officers may begin working extra shifts at other jobs, such as directing traffic for church services or providing private security, a situation that could result in fewer officers patrolling Austin’s streets on overtime shifts.
However, she said she is also concerned about the financial impact of the practice.
“We have just gotten started talking about this,” Futrell said. “I don’t know that we are going to end up or get to a different solution.”
Sheffield said he and other union representatives would fight any attempts to change the policy.
Austin police officers who combined overtime and vacation in 20 weeks or more in 2005.
Name Title Number of weeks with overtime
and vacation Department overtime Leave pay
Richard P. Egal police officer 20 $12,272 $4,956
Jon B. Ellsworth detective 21 $11,259 $5,244
Jeffrey Haynes detective 22 $5,416 $8,632
Jonathan Herring detective 22 $16,012 $5,769
Clarence Jamail sergeant 20 $9,595 $7,035
*Jonathan Martin police officer 25 $21,398 $7,589
*Terence W. Meadows detective 22 $17,380 $7,077
William Mercado police officer 22 $9,235 $7,170
*Gary Newberg police corporal 22 $21,154 $4,859
Christopher Perkins police officer 22 $12,290 $6,013
Cortney W. Renfro detective 26 $9,058 $6,683
John T. Townsend police officer 23 $11,540 $6,042
Robbie M. Volk detective 21 $4,081 $6,281
*Among top 10 overall wage earner in department in 2005