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Overtime Jumps as L.A. Schools Try to Save

Budget: In effort to streamline computer operations, personnel costs have soared. Superintendent says he will call for an evaluation.

January 05, 1997|AMY PYLE | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

In 1993, a management audit of the Los Angeles Unified School District suggested that broad savings could be realized by paring back bureaucracy and interweaving computer systems.

But making those very changes, a process that began even before the audit, sent district costs soaring in one area--overtime.

An analysis of district records by The Times shows that over the last five years, overtime pay has increased more than 500% in three divisions at the heart of the district's computerization: budgeting, accounting and, most of all, technology.

By contrast, overtime in the rest of the district rose 25% during that same period.

The audit by Chicago-based Arthur Andersen & Co. had predicted that the changes would initially mean some increased costs, but did not specify overtime. An Anderson progress report released this fall said significant savings had begun in some other areas, such as bus maintenance and energy bills, but criticized the computer operation--formally known as the Information and Technology Division--for trailing expectations.

Supt. Sid Thompson said he was unaware of the scope of the overtime increase and vowed to call for a formal evaluation, with an eye toward hiring more employees to do some of the extra work.

"When you see [overtime] increasing five times, one has to ask the question: Is this the best way to do business?" Thompson said. "I don't think it is."

Later this month, however, the school board is scheduled to be asked to formalize the rapid escalation by setting aside $2 million in advance for overtime work by up to 860 eligible employees in the three divisions, a proposal that has largely escaped notice during months of school board budget debates.

That expenditure would be barely a blip in a nearly $5-billion budget, but compensation experts say it raises intriguing questions about management of the nation's second-largest school system: Why can't jobs be done during the normal workday? Why not hire additional people, at least temporarily? And, more immediate, does earmarking money for overtime remove incentives for economizing?

With overtime budgeted in advance "you don't look at your problems," said Gilbert Siegel, professor emeritus of public productivity at USC. "If they have a data processing surge and they know it's going to come along, somebody ought to be thinking about that. But the tendency is not to, just put it in the budget and everyone plans on it."

There are practical concerns too, such as the long-term impact of overtime on the employees who work the extra hours. Union leaders who represent the overtime-eligible workers worry that the constant long hours guarantee early burnout, more illness and, ultimately, expensive workers' compensation claims.

"This is forced opportunity," said Connie Moreno, who heads the 4,600-member chapter of the California School Employees Assn. "Your overtime money goes to the IRS and you end up destroying your family [because] you're just never at home."

Moreno said she has noticed an increasing number of employees with injuries related to computer keyboard use, such as tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful injury caused by repetitive motion.

District data indicates that the hundreds of employees in question--such as payroll clerks, data processors and secretaries--average 111 overtime hours annually, earning them about $3,000 extra.

But that average is inflated by many extreme cases, topped by a telecommunications aide who oversees the district's switchboard operation and who logged 1,136 hours in overtime last year. That extra work averaged out to almost five hours daily and nearly doubled her salary, to $57,921. A telephone operator who works for her came in a close second in the overtime hours ranking, putting in 1,056 hours.

Some employees say the prospect of time-and-a-half pay encourages colleagues to create overtime. One computer division employee alleged that some workers stay late to repair portable radios, at a cost of at least $40 a unit, when the radios could be replaced for half that amount.

Troubled to learn of the high overtime chalked up by some, Thompson said he would ask that they be the first ones reviewed.

"I have to make the assumption they're really working those hours, and it's just not good for them," he said.

The school district's overtime dilemma is not unique. Other public agencies regularly weigh whether to hire new people--who must be paid a salary and benefits--or work current employees more.

Controversy arose last spring about record overtime in Los Angeles city and county fire departments, where at least 400 employees pocketed $40,000 or more in overtime. Nevertheless, the firefighters union released figures showing that overtime was cheaper than hiring full-time workers. One position filled with overtime hours cost $71,000 a year, about $8,000 less than hiring a new person.

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