Honolulu’s city government is spending more on overtime than it ever has before.
In the last five years, the total cost of city employees’ overtime increased almost 30 percent, from $52 million in fiscal year 2013 to about $67 million in FY 2017, which ended June 30, according to information from the city’s data portal and its Department of Budget and Fiscal Services.
The city has been accommodating the increased costs by adding more money for overtime to its yearly budget. For FY 2016, the City Council approved about $62 million to pay for overtime. When the council passed the budget for FY 2018, which began July 1, it set that figure at $69 million — a 12 percent increase in two years.
Some departments spend much more on overtime than they’re budgeted for, pulling from reserves and money designated for vacant positions to cover the extra costs. Others spend less on overtime than they are allotted.
The departments vary in size and work responsibilities. Technical workers in the city’s IT department are accustomed to eight-hour workdays, but firefighters and policemen routinely work overtime responding to emergencies.
In the last fiscal year, most of the city’s overtime costs were incurred by three departments: Fire, Police and Environmental Services. They used 80 percent of the city’s nearly $67 million overtime expenses in FY 2017.
Another big overtime spender, the Department of Emergency Services, includes paramedics and emergency medical technicians who work in ambulances. Staffing shortages have plagued the department in the past, forcing employees who staff ambulances to work overtime.
Twenty-one of the 229 total funded paramedic and EMT positions are vacant, Shayne Enright, a city spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
Over 90 percent of the department’s $5.35 million overtime budget is dedicated to emergency medical services, which includes ambulance costs. The city pays overtime costs upfront, but the state Department of Heath reimburses the city, Enright said.
The Department of Environmental Services was the subject of a recent audit of the city’s bulky item collection service that raised a red flag concerning overtime abuse.
The monthly service allows residents to leave discards like mattresses and appliances curbside for pickup. The audit found some employees taking excessive sick leave and working excessive amounts of overtime .
Of the $10.5 million Environmental Services spent on overtime in FY 2016, 72 percent was for the Refuse Collection Division, which includes the city’s bulky item pickup program.
The findings made Councilman Joey Manahan question how widespread overtime abuse is in city government. He has introduced a measure urging the council to crack down on overtime abuse. Ending the abuse, he said, would require managers of various city divisions to crack down on employees who find ways to work excessive overtime.
“We haven’t really had a comprehensive discussion at the city with regards to overtime.” City Councilman Joey Manahan
Manahan sent a formal request asking that his resolution be on the agenda at the Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee meeting Oct.24, but Councilman Ron Menor, who chairs the committee, decides what’s on the agenda. The agenda will be published on the city’s website six business days before the meeting.
“I was just curious if that was a problem just in the Environmental Services Department or was it an issue across the board for all departments,” Manahan said. “We haven’t really had a comprehensive discussion at the city with regards to overtime.”
The Fire Department has had the largest increase in overtime expenses since 2013. The amount budgeted for the department’s overtime costs jumped from $10.5 million in FY 2014 to more than $17 million the following year.
An overtime policy change was made that year in the department’s contract with the firefighters union to ensure that engines carry a full crew, said Socrates Bratakos, an assistant fire chief .
“That accounted for a significant increase for overtime,” Bratakos said.
Before the new contracts, “we weren’t able to fill the trucks with as many people,” Bratakos said. “We often had three people on the truck — we think that’s not as safe as having four.”
Firefighters take training courses on their days off, and are paid overtime for the training, said Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association. He added that staffing shortages force some firefighters to work overtime.
“Pretty much on a daily basis they have staffing needs that they need to fill because of vacancies, sick leave, vacation and people on military leave,” Lee said.
Capt. David Jenkins, a Fire Department spokesman, disagreed, saying that while the department is continuously filling vacancies, there’s no staffing shortage.
The Police Department did not make anyone available to comment on overtime expenses for this report. In an email, Michelle Yu, an HPD spokeswoman, said that the department had 1,938 officers and 205 vacancies as of Aug. 1.