A nurse at the California Men’s Colony earned $269,810 — triple her regular salary — in 2010 by racking up more overtime than any other state employee, according to a recent report from Bloomberg Businessweek.
It wasn’t a fluke: The Sacramento Bee’s state salary database shows that the same employee earned in excess of $250,000 the two previous years: $267,060 in 2009 and $282,943 in 2008.
That an employee is allowed to regularly work that much overtime — last year alone, she put in 2,450 additional hours — is outrageous. But don’t pillory the employee when it’s the state of California that’s ultimately responsible.
While the state struggles to balance its budget by closing parks, raising college tuition and cutting funds for education, health care, senior services, libraries and a host of other programs, it continues to dole out much more than it should in overtime and other extra pay.
According to the Bloomberg article, California public employees received $1.7 billion in “extra” pay last year. More than half of that was in overtime payments and the remainder in uniform allowances, physical fitness stipends and other perks.
What’s especially galling is that furloughs and hiring freezes that were supposed to save money have, in some instances, wound up costing taxpayers more in the long run.
Consider this finding from a 2009 state report “Furloughs in Round-the-Clock Operations: Savings are Illusory” by the Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes:
“Furloughs are projected to increase costs within the prison health care system by $37 million to $47 million this year, according to the court-appointed receiver. They say furloughs also create a ‘management nightmare’ and interfere with the court-mandated effort to improve inmate medical care.”
But it wasn’t just furloughs driving up prison health care overtime costs over the past few years.
Nancy Kincaid, spokeswoman for California Correctional Health Care Services, told us a high number of vacancies were a problem for many years, though that has been steadily improving. In 2009, there were 150 nursing positions vacant systemwide, 18 of them at CMC; in 2010, there were 80.7 vacancies, including 12.6 at CMC; and as of September of this year, there were 75.4 vacancies, and only 1.8 at CMC.
That should bring down overtime costs in the future, though unforeseen circumstances — such as the recent inmate hunger strikes at some prisons — can drive up OT.
And the recent hiring spurt doesn’t necessarily mean the overtime hours for the nurse who earned close to $270,000 will dip dramatically. She works in the mental-health crisis unit, Kincaid said, where the potential for violence is high. It’s especially difficult to fill nursing shifts there.
We find that all the more reason that overtime should be kept to a minimum there. No employee should have to put in 2,450 hours of overtime, but that’s especially true in such a stressful situation.
If the state can’t hire more skilled nurses to do the job, then it’s time to contract with private providers.
Bottom line: With the state unemployment rate at 12 percent, it’s unconscionable to pay extreme amounts of overtime to some workers when so many Californians are desperate for jobs.
While some overtime is inevitable — especially in emergency situations — the state must do a much better job of limiting OT and other “extra” pay.