Safety fears rise with Pittsburgh's use of overtime
Pittsburgh is paying millions in overtime each year to cut costs by avoiding new hires, but some city officials say public safety and other services are suffering as a result.
Seven of Pittsburgh's 10 highest-paid employees last year received overtime pay that was at least double their regular salary, according to figures from the city.
“There is a real problem in the excessive use of overtime, particularly in public safety,” said City Controller Michael Lamb, a Democratic candidate for mayor next year.
He plans to release an audit of the fire department on Wednesday that will examine overtime costs, among other things. “If you've got a guy working seven days ... you can't tell me that doesn't have an impact on their ability to be alert and do their jobs.”
Overtime in 2011 represented about 17 percent of the city's $193 million payroll, and most of it went to public safety personnel, including police, fire and emergency medical services, city records show.
Allegheny County, by comparison, paid about 5 percent of its $318 million payroll in overtime, according to information it supplied in response to a Right to Know request. Its top wage earners last year were department directors and executives, most of whom do not qualify for overtime pay.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is reviewing all costs and has ordered department directors to minimize overtime, spokeswoman Amie Downs said.
Pittsburgh's workforce includes about 3,100 full-time employees, down by about 1,000 from 10 years ago as administrations cut personnel because of the city's financial condition.
“Things are different than they were 10 years ago,” said Joanna Doven, spokeswoman for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. “We are not the same city. We can and we do operate more efficiently.”
She said department heads report their staffing needs to the administration, which fills positions. The city has private companies under contract at a savings to do some of the work that public employees once did.
The city hasn't determined, though, whether it is cheaper to pay overtime or hire more people, according to Henry Sciortino, executive director of the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, one of the city's two state-appointed fiscal oversight agencies.
The ICA wants the city to buy software that will permit detailed analysis of overtime and other costs. The ICA approved the city's $470 million budget for next year contingent upon the purchase of such software.
Firefighters benefit in retirement from working overtime. Their pensions are based on total salaries during their last three years on the job, Doven said. The more overtime they work, the bigger their pensions. The city in 2010 avoided a state takeover of its underfunded pension system only by committing hundreds of millions in parking taxes to it.
The city's 10 highest-paid employees are firefighters, emergency medical personnel and police officers, all of whom were paid more than $100,000 in 2011.
William Martin, a Pittsburgh Fire Bureau battalion chief, was the seventh-highest-paid city employee at $147,710, which included $47,844 in overtime.
Martin, 63, said he's a member of the department's hazardous material team and a state-certified fire safety inspector, both of which contributed to his ability to earn overtime. He believes the long hours worked by some firefighters have been a contributing factor in work-related injuries.
“You put a lot of time in, that takes a toll on your body,” he said.
City police Detective Michael Burns, who was ninth on the top 10 list at $144,883, said he made most of his $78,823 in overtime from working special details, in which event organizers reimburse the city for costs of police protection.
“All of the police who made the list are pretty much all (earning overtime from) secondary employment,” he said.
The other workers on the Top 10 list either would not comment, did not return calls or could not be reached.
Allegheny County's highest-paid employee was Chief Medical Examiner Karl E. Williams, whose salary is $180,250. He is not eligible for overtime.
Ravenstahl ($103,425) and former county Executive Dan Onorato ($89,999) ranked 172nd and 131st on their respective lists of top wage earners.
Tony Weinmann, the city EMS union president, said a lot of his members, similar to police, earn overtime while covering special events such as Steelers and Penguins games. In those cases, the teams reimburse the city, he said.
“The money they make, they put the hours in,” he said, adding that he doesn't think long hours hurt job performance. “They work every day, basically.”
Council President Darlene Harris said the problem is that Pittsburgh can't afford to hire more people.
“If we're paying overtime, then we're not paying the health insurance and the pensions and everything else,” she said. “Would I like more police officers? Yes. I would like more of everyone ... but right now we have to balance a budget.”
Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.