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Two departments dominate $84M in OT spending by RI taxpayers

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island taxpayers spent $84 million on overtime last fiscal year, with just two state departments accounting for more than half the cost, according to a Target 12 review of payroll data.

The analysis found the Department of Corrections and the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals – otherwise known as BHDDH – together accounted for 54% of all overtime costs last fiscal year. 

At the same time, other state agencies — including Rhode Island College, the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Children, Youth and Families — have experienced soaring overtime costs in recent years.

State officials say the issue is already on the radar, and internal policies are being created to try and stem the growing costs. 

“Much of the overtime is related to critical 24/7 operations, which require shifts to be covered for health and safety reasons. In addition, our health and human service agencies have a legal and moral responsibility to care for all children, families and other customers who come into contact with our systems,” said Brenna McCabe, spokesperson for the R.I. Department of Administration (where overtime costs increased about 20% to $1.3 million between fiscal years 2014 and 2018).

“Each agency is a little different,” she added. “Depending upon the department, there are a handful of reasons overtime can increase.”

Overtime across state government increased about 5% from fiscal 2013-14 to fiscal 2017-18, and the biggest standout was the DOC. As first reported by Target 12, overtime pay at the department overseeing state prisons has rapidly grown in recent years.

The department operates around the clock, which requires constant staffing. But correctional officers have also increasingly volunteered to work longer shifts – including 32 consecutive hours, also known as “quads” – which allow officers to earn up to double their regular wages, according to Richard Ferruccio, president of the R.I. Brotherhood of Correctional Officers. 

The long shifts, which the union blames on a recent hiring freeze that led to staffing shortages, have contributed to $30.4 million in overtime costs last fiscal year, representing a 48% increase compared to five years earlier. The 2018 costs accounted for more than one-third of all overtime pay across state government, according to payroll records. 

“We are going to have to staff these posts,” Ferruccio said.

The DOC, however, isn’t the only state operation grappling with high overtime costs.

Slater Hospital drives OT costs at BHDDH

BHDDH, which provides services to Rhode Islanders with developmental disabilities, mental illnesses and substance-use disorders, spent nearly $15 million on overtime during fiscal 2018, representing 18% of total overtime across state departments.

Like the DOC, the department has 24/7 operations, and two-thirds of its overtime costs are spent on nurses and other workers at Eleanor Slater Hospital, according to the department. But the department is also challenged by unfilled jobs. 

“Some of the biggest factors that cause overtime, beyond the 24-7 nature of the operations, are the time it takes to fill open positions and workers’ compensation cases,” said BHDDH spokesperson Randal Edgar. 

About a third of overtime costs are a result of employees being out on workers’ compensation, according to the department.

Edgar said officials have made some moves to try and address its high overtime costs, including adding part-time staff, requiring new hires to work some weekend shifts and allowing more flexibility when it comes to filling certain positions when someone is out. Overtime hours at the hospital have fallen this year as a result, according to Edgar. 

“Obviously, we see the reduction in overtime hours as a positive trend,” he said. “Variables change, but we monitor those fluctuations and try to adapt as quickly as possible to meet the needs of the people who rely on us.”  

On the surface, high overtime costs may look like poor budgetary planning. But some argue the strategy is ultimately cheaper than hiring new workers, who would also create new fixed costs, including costly benefits such as health insurance and pensions.

According to a December report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, benefit costs accounted for 37.5% of total compensation for state and local government workers. 

The cost-savings strategy, however, falls short in the eyes of Kathy McElroy, president of Local 580, whose union represents about 300 employees at the embattled DCYF.  

“It may be cheaper to pay overtime, but then there’s a quality of life problem because people are overworked,” McElroy said. “If we have to do overtime to keep up with the caseload, it means we’re inadequately staffed.” 

From fiscal 2014 to fiscal 2018, DCYF overtime costs increased 27% to nearly $5.9 million, and caseworkers have struggled to keep up with their caseloads, McElroy said.

The union estimates each caseworker should handle about 14 families. Today, some are dealing with upward of 23 families, according to McElroy, who says the department is about 20 people short of what’s needed to alleviate the burden. McElroy said BHDDH has made some efforts to address the underlying staffing issues in recent years, and underscored the need for state lawmakers to take part in the solution.  

“Some of the responsibility lays with the governor and General Assembly for inadequately staffing a department that handles the most difficult cases,” McElroy said.

State Sen. Louis DiPalma, a Middletown Democrat and member of the Senate Finance Committee, says overtime costs related to health and human services appear high. He said he will spend the summer reviewing the numbers to see how they compare to other parts of the country.

“If someone said, ‘Does this look right?’ I’d say, ‘No,’” DiPalma said about overtime costs. “It seems larger than it should be, but I need all the facts and data to make that determination.” 

DCYF spokesperson Kerri White said overtime costs have increased in part because overall salaries are growing, but also because the department – under Trista Piccola, its director since 2017 – has been successful in reducing vacancy rates among frontline workers to 5% from 20% when she took over, which ultimately translates into greater personnel costs. 

Despite the staffing boost, however, DCYF – like other areas of health services – struggles with a high rate of staff turnover, which officials say in turn hurts its ability to keep overtime costs low. 

“As DCYF experiences turnover, overtime is needed while training is under way for new staff,” White said. “This is one trend that has contributed to the department’s current overtime trends. Additionally, when staff are out on long-term leave, that can contribute to the need for overtime as the department does not have the ability to backfill that position.”

New troopers could lower safety overtime

In addition to health-oriented departments and prisons, the Department of Public Safety realized quick growth in overtime costs.

Between fiscal years 2013-14 and 2017-18, the department reported a 44% increase in overtime costs, which totaled $7.4 million last fiscal year, according to payroll records. The department — which includes the Rhode Island State Police, 9-1-1 emergency workers and Capitol Police — had more than 240 employees make at least $10,000 in overtime pay last fiscal year. Twelve made more than $50,000. 

Department of Public Safety spokesperson Laura Meade Kirk said overtime costs are fueled by staffing shortages caused by mandatory retirements and attrition, along with factors such as contractual agreements and increased security at state facilities.

“Many of these costs cannot be anticipated nor avoided, given the work required to adequately protect and serve residents and visitors to our state,” Kirk said.

The department expects overtime costs to fall because staffing levels have increased within the last year, Kirk added, and state police leaders expect 37 recruits to graduate from a training academy later this month.

“While filling open positions will help decrease overall overtime costs in the coming year, the fact remains that the Rhode Island State Police and Department of Public Safety must remain ready and responsive to all threats to public safety, at whatever cost it takes,” Kirk said.

Rhode Island College is an arm of state government unrelated to safety and health that stands out when it came to overtime spending.

Over the five fiscal years, overtime costs at RIC increased 45%, totaling $1.3 million last fiscal year. The total represents only 1.3% of total overtime costs statewide, but the growth represents the second-fastest increase across all state departments that spent more than $1 million in overtime. 

Employees with high overtime pay included campus police, along with grounds workers and housekeepers, according to payroll records. Nearly 50 RIC employees made more than $10,000 in overtime during fiscal 2018, according to payroll records. 

RIC spokesperson John Taraborelli said reasons for the spike in overtime included the departure of two officers, special events, more capital projects requiring police details, and the need for more housekeeping due to the construction of additional buildings.

“The college has been monitoring overtime for the current year and anticipates a significant reduction in overtime expenses,” he said in an email.

In an effort to address high overtime costs across state government, an internal policy advisory group is working to create more stringent policies surrounding extended work hours, according to the Department of Administration’s McCabe. The group examining was scheduled to meet Wednesday, with a goal to finalize its new rules by the end of the week.

The policy is intended to “enhance the administration’s oversight of overtime approvals and tighten up our processes to ensure accountability within the agencies,” McCabe said. “We think this will increase accountability.”

“The more data you have about why these things are authorized or occur, the better you can make decisions about addressing the challenge,” she said.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter

Tim White contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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