Overtime at Mecklenburg County public agencies has soared in recent years, allowing some workers to more than double their pay.
During the decade that ended in 2017, one city of Charlotte utility worker collected more than $330,000 in overtime. He was among more than 20 government employees who, in some years, earned more overtime than salary, state records show.
The vast majority of public workers don’t receive exorbitant overtime, and local government leaders say they work to make sure overtime pay isn’t excessive.
But a Charlotte Observer review of state data found that Charlotte and Mecklenburg County doled out more overtime in recent years than any other local governments. And as overtime to public workers has surged in recent years, Mecklenburg County’s largest agencies have busted their overtime budgets.
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The Observer’s findings drew concern from taxpayer watchdogs who worry about wasteful spending - and from experts who study the effects of fatigue on emergency workers, such as paramedics.
Some Charlotte paramedics averaged more than six hours of overtime per day, which can leave workers exhausted and more likely to make mistakes that can prove deadly.
“I’m sure they’re not at their best if they’re working 50, 60, 70 hours a week,” said Daniel Patterson, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has written extensively about the effects of fatigue on EMS workers. “You would have to ask yourself, ‘How could they not be fatigued?’ ”
Government officials say they need to be able to pay overtime in order to cover busy periods without overstaffing. Overtime has increased, they say, largely because low unemployment makes it harder to fill job vacancies.
A city spokesperson said supervisors monitor extra hours to ensure employees are working safely and efficiently.
Charlotte City Councilman Ed Driggs said he believes the city has robust controls for assessing the proper use of public money. Still, he said, it’s impossible to prevent all instances of bad conduct.
“There could be around the edges some inappropriate behavior,” he said.
Overtime, typically paid at one-and-a-half times a worker’s regular hourly rate, can also significantly boost a public employee’s retirement pay, often by thousands of dollars per year. That’s because government retirement pay is based, in large part, on how much income employees make during their best-paid years. That leaves taxpayers shouldering a heavier financial burden for government pensions.
Across North Carolina, overtime pay to public workers has soared in recent years. In 2017, total overtime pay to government employees in the state exceeded $237 million — more than twice what it was 10 years earlier, according to data collected by the N.C. Department of State Treasurer.
Here is a look at overtime paid by Mecklenburg’s government agencies:
Overtime pay at Mecklenburg County’s EMS agency has more than doubled in recent years, from about $2.4 million in 2013 to more than $4.9 million in 2017, the latest year for which comprehensive figures are available.
MEDIC’s workload has risen significantly faster than its staffing, agency data shows. In fiscal year 2018, the agency handled more than 114,000 transports — an increase of almost 25 percent since fiscal year 2013. The agency’s operational staff grew about 17 percent during that time period.
“The amount of staffing we have had to do to keep up is remarkable,” said MEDIC Deputy Director Jeff Keith.
In 2017, about 16 percent of MEDIC’s total compensation went to overtime. That was higher than the percentage for any of the other public agencies for which the state treasurer’s department has collected data. But it’s unclear how MEDIC compares to other EMS services on that measure because the data on comparable agencies in North Carolina is not readily available.
The amount that MEDIC spent on overtime has run over budget during each of the past three years. But the agency has never exceeded its total labor budget, which includes both overtime and regular pay, Keith said.
The agency would like to be able to reduce what it spends on overtime by hiring more paramedics, Keith said, but finding sufficient numbers of qualified paramedics in the current job market has been difficult.
MEDIC employee John Gibson, whose regular salary in 2016 was about $66,500, collected an additional $78,000 in overtime that year. Over two years — 2015 and 2016 — Gibson made a total of nearly $140,000 in overtime. He retired in 2017 but continues to work for MEDIC on a part-time basis.
In recent years, at least three of MEDIC’s emergency workers have averaged more than 30 hours of overtime per week. Work weeks that long can wear out paramedics and make them more prone to mistakes, experts say. Nationally, several patients have died when ambulance drivers fell asleep at the wheel and crashed.
In December, an ambulance in Alamance County veered off the road and slammed into a concrete retaining wall after the driver fell asleep. An EMS worker inside the ambulance was injured.
And in May 2016, an ambulance in South Carolina crashed into a concrete wall after the driver fell asleep at the wheel. The driver had been working an overtime shift at the time, an Horry County spokeswoman told the Myrtle Beach Sun News.
MEDIC officials say staff shortages present challenges, but they try to ensure employees don’t become exhausted.
Paramedics aren’t allowed to work more than 26 consecutive hours or more than 80 hours a week. Dispatchers keep track of which paramedics have had busy shifts, and try to give them breaks by posting them in parts of the county that typically have fewer 911 calls, Keith said. Emergency workers are allowed to sleep at their posts between calls.
City of Charlotte
Overtime pay to Charlotte city workers rose from about $12.6 million in 2013 to about $15.5 million in 2017.
About 4 percent of the city’s total compensation went to overtime in 2017, a comparatively high percentage. Statewide, about 1 percent of total compensation to public workers was spent on overtime, according to the state treasurer’s data.
Among Charlotte’s highest overtime earners:
▪ Steven Yeager, a chief airport construction inspector for the city, collected more than $250,000 in overtime over 10 years. In 2017 alone, Yeager was paid more than $53,000 in overtime. That amounted to about two-thirds of his regular salary.
▪ Garry Williams, a labor crew chief with Charlotte Water who had an annual salary of about $46,000 in 2016, made nearly $57,000 in overtime that year. Over 10 years, his overtime pay totaled more than $330,000.
▪ Among firefighters, the highest earner was John S. Furr, who made more than $50,000 in overtime in 2017 - roughly doubling what he earned from his salary.
▪ Robert E. Johnson, a chief maintenance mechanic for the city’s engineering and property management department, got more than $308,000 in overtime over 10 years.
(Note: The Observer tried to reach each of the employees named in this story, but none responded.)
Such overtime payments can markedly increase an employee’s retirement pay.
Yeager, the airport construction inspector, is on track to earn more than $26,000 in annual retirement pay, the Observer found. With no overtime, his retirement benefit likely would have been about $10,000 less.
A 2016 city audit found that Charlotte adequately monitors overtime pay. Still, the audit found, some employees worked excessive overtime hours. And some worked an increased amount of overtime as they approached retirement — a pattern that has increased the public cost for retirement benefits.
The audit also found that about two-thirds of the city’s overtime pay went to workers in three departments: police, water and solid waste.
A city spokesperson said supervisors monitor overtime hours to ensure employees are working safely and efficiently.
In county government, overtime has run significantly over budget during each of the past four years. Overtime pay climbed from about $5.8 million in 2012 to just over $8 million in 2017.
Several sheriff’s deputies made more than $50,000 in overtime in 2017. That worked out to an average of more than 20 hours of overtime per week.
A sheriff’s spokesperson said the office takes steps to prevent employees from becoming overworked. Staff members aren’t allowed to work more than 16 hours in any 24-hour period. And employees are required to take at least one day off for each two-week pay period.
“The effects of fatigue are well-documented and we do not want a less efficient or less effective workforce,” wrote Anjanette Grube, who recently left her job as an office spokesperson. “Overtime is used to adequately staff shifts and provide the required services.”
Mecklenburg County Finance Director Sarah Lyberg said high staff vacancy rates typically lead to more overtime. In late 2018, about 14 percent of county positions were vacant - up from about 11 percent the previous year.
But managers must generally approve overtime in advance, Lyberg said, and the county has safeguards to flag unusual overtime.
“(Overtime) is a really critical safety valve,” Lyberg said. “But it is not a long-term staffing solution.”
County commissioner Pat Cotham said that part of the problem may stem from the county’s failure to pay competitive salaries to employees in some departments. In the sheriff’s office, for instance, low pay has led to higher staff vacancy rates and more overtime she said. That can create risks for the county and strains on employees and their families, she said.
“It’s like if you drive a long time. You may not be alert,” Cotham said. “And there’s a greater chance for accidents. You don’t have efficiency and good decisions if people are overworked and overtired.”
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools paid about $6.3 million in overtime in 2017 - a 10 percent increase over the previous year.
In both 2016 and 2017, the amount that CMS spent on overtime ran significantly over budget.
In the 2017-2018 school year, the school district paid a total of almost $225,000 in overtime to just five employees in building services. Three of those workers made more than $45,000 in overtime.
Hoa Van Bui, an electronic fire alarms specialist, was the highest earner, making nearly $50,000 in overtime - more than Bui’s annual salary.
In a December 2018 memo, two school executives said that vacant positions have become difficult to staff based on available talent and “compensation considerations.”
“Inadequate staff and vacant positions have precluded staffing evening shifts, which would be preferable to overtime,” the statement read.
School officials also said the employees who received “elevated” overtime amounts “are some of the most dependable/reliable staff we have … They can be counted on any day and any time to help prepare schools for occupancy.”
Across North Carolina, no agency paid more overtime than the N.C. Department of Public Safety, which doled out more more than $35 million in overtime in 2017.
Current and former DPS staffers previously told the Observer that prison leaders have burned out some officers by forcing them to work dangerous amounts of overtime.
And a 2017 Observer investigation found that more than 45 North Carolina prison officers were fired for sleeping on the job since 2012. Some dozed inside hospitals with loaded guns at their sides while inmates they were supposed to be guarding sat nearby.
Among the other public agencies that provided information to the N.C. Department of State Treasurer about their 2017 overtime pay:
▪ The state Department of Health and Human Services logged the second highest overtime expenditures. That agency paid more than $24 million in overtime.
▪ UNC Health Care came in at number 3, with overtime payments totaling more than $18 million.
▪ The City of Charlotte was number 4, paying more than $15 million for overtime.
▪ The N.C. Department of Transportation came in at number 5, with more than $11 million in overtime payments.
▪ Mecklenburg County was sixth on the list. It paid more than $8 million in overtime.
(Not all public entities report information about overtime and bonus pay to the state treasurer. Among those that did not report their overtime figures to the state: Raleigh, Fayetteville and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. In response to a request from the Observer, CMS did provide data to the newspaper.)
The large overtime payouts to some of the state’s public workers have troubled taxpayer watchdogs.
“Instances of employees receiving more overtime pay than salary is certainly cause for further investigation,” said Curtis Kalin, spokesman for Citizens Against Government Waste. “Public employees should be paid competitively, but public service should be about serving the public, not enriching yourself.”
Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform, says the large overtime payments raise questions: Is overtime granted equally to all employees? Would taxpayers be better served if government agencies simply hired more workers? Is the public getting what it deserves from government employees when they are working so many hours?
“It just makes sense to have people who are alert, awake and ready to do the job,” Pinsky said.