State’s overtime costs soar
Vacant prison guard jobs help push tab to $64.5 million, a 10-year high
Madison — The overtime paid to state workers rose by 12% last year to a level not seen for at least a decade, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis has found.
The sharp increase in overtime wages suggests that Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10 repeal of most collective bargaining is no longer holding down those costs the way it did several years ago.
The state paid $64.5 million in overtime in 2015 to corrections, health and other state workers, up nearly one-third from a low of $49.4 million in 2012.
Sean Daley, a longtime prison workers representative for Council 32 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, isn’t surprised. He said many officers are now being required to work back-to-back shifts, or 16 hours in all, for two or more times in a week.
“I’ve never seen it to this magnitude,” Daley said of the overtime.
The Walker administration said the savings from Act 10 and the governor’s overall policies dwarf these overtime bills, having held down state and local government costs by billions of dollars overall since 2011. Overtime rose in 2015 from a range of factors, from turnover within the prison system and other agencies hitting its highest level in at least a decade to others outside of state control, such as forest fires and investigations of shootings by police.
To recruit more prison workers, the Walker administration in February brought in a well-regarded agency veteran, Jon Litscher, as corrections secretary and in May rolled out a $10 million-a-year plan to raise wages by 80 cents an hour for thousands of corrections officers, with some of them temporarily receiving more than that.
These latest overtime figures underline the urgen-
cy for the state to fill the hundreds of vacant prison positions. By analyzing state payroll data released through the open records law, the Journal Sentinel found:
Without adjusting for the limited raises of state workers, overtime last year hit its highest level since at least 2006, when taxpayers paid $60.2 million to state workers who put in more than their 40 hours per week.
The Department of Corrections accounted for the bulk of the increase in overtime across state government last year. Wisconsin’s prison system paid out $39.9 million in overtime wages, up $4.7 million, or 13.4%, from the previous year.
The overtime still amounts to just a fraction of the agency’s more than $1 billion a year budget.
The Department of Health Services, which runs its own secure psychiatric institutions, saw its overtime expenses rise by $589,000, or 6.3%, to $10 million. The Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates nursing homes for elderly veterans among its other programs, saw an even larger increase of $607,000, or 37%, to $2.3 million.
Overtime can be one tool for state leaders to keep overall staffing levels low and avoid making taxpayers pay for health and pension benefits for new employees. But chronically understaffed institutions can lead to other costs for the state, such as having to pick up mileage and hotels for guards to travel from one prison to another to pick up empty shifts.
Corrections spokesman Tristan Cook said about 60% of the overtime paid to frontline prison staff comes from covering for sick days and vacant jobs. When that happens, wardens don’t have the option of leaving key prison shifts unfilled, Cook said.
As the national economy improves, Wisconsin has found it harder to recruit and retain workers.
Union leaders have argued that stagnant wages and changes to union rules have made state government a less attractive employer to its workforce. State officials say the problems here aren’t unusual and that they’re seeking more input from their workforce.
“State departments of corrections across the country have experienced difficulty recruiting correctional officers,” Cook said. “Secretary Litscher has visited a number of DOC correctional facilities, including every maximum-security and mediumsecurity facility, to hear directly from front-line staff and institution managers as part of a departmentwide push to increase open lines of communication between staff and management.”
Cook said only a small portion of the overtime, no more than a few percentage points, was due to ongoing misconduct investigations of corrections officers. Between January 2014 and February 2016, the state put nearly 400 corrections officers and other staff on paid leave for an average of 54 days while agency officials investigated allegations against them.
Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Allouez) said he’s pleased that Litscher and the Walker administration are making efforts to hire more prison workers at facilities in his area such as Green Bay Correctional Institution. Overtime, he said, takes a toll on both taxpayers and prison employees.
“This excessive overtime is undesirable, especially as it applies to corrections,” Cowles said.
State overtime jumped amid the labor protests and law enforcement demands of 2011 and then fell the next year as Act 10 took effect and ushered in new work rules.
Before 2011, for instance, workers who called in sick for a shift and then worked the immediate next shift were paid one shift at their regular pay and the other at time and a half. In 2008, the Journal Sentinel published an investigation that showed some prison guards had boosted their income by working the system this way.
For the past five years, both shifts are paid at straight time; workers don’t get overtime unless they actually work extra hours.
But overtime has risen since 2012 along with employee
Other agencies that saw higher overtime in 2015 include the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Justice, with overtime at the latter increasing more than tenfold between 2006 and 2015, to $1.2 million.
Walker administration spokesman Steven Michels and Justice spokesman Johnny Koremenos said those increases were due to several factors, including an increase in forest fires and the transfer of existing staff who work on criminal justice issues from the Department of Administration to the Department of Justice. Detectives in the Justice Department also have played a huge rule in reviewing shootings by police officers under a law signed by Walker in 2014 that requires an independent investigation in such cases.
Michels said the administration is taking steps to manage overtime across state agencies, including legislation signed by Walker in February overhauling the process the state uses to fill civil service jobs.
“The legislation will expedite the hiring process, reward outstanding performance and create consistent and clear rules to be followed across state government. New technology and recruiting strategies are being developed and we expect to launch a new hiring website and mobile interface in March 2017,” Michels said.