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State overtime increases; cost was $36M in 2013

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The number of overtime hours worked by rank-and-file New Mexico state government employees has risen steadily in recent years, while the number of workers has decreased.

The state paid out nearly $36.7 million in overtime – representing nearly 1.6 million overtime hours – during the 2013 budget year, according to a State Personnel Office report released earlier this month.

Those figures were up significantly from previous years. Just three years earlier, in the 2010 fiscal year, a total of $24.4 million in overtime – the cost of roughly 1 million in overtime hours – was paid to classified state employees.

Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, said he’s concerned about the trend. He questioned why some state agencies in Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration have not been using the full amount of money appropriated to them by the Legislature for filling vacant jobs.

a01_jd_28dec_nmovertimeYou can only run overtime for an individual for so long before they start burning out,” said Varela, chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee.

State Personnel Director Gene Moser, however, said the rise in overtime cost and usage is attributable to an aging state workforce and a spike in retirements.

Although Moser said the Martinez administration is concerned about the burnout factor and trying to keep pace with the high rate of retiring state workers, he added that some employees welcome the chance to make extra money.

“What we’re seeing in some areas is the overtime isn’t spread evenly,” he said. “Some folks just want to work the overtime for extra cash.”

He pointed out that the 3,090 classified employees hired by the state during the 2013 budget year marked a big jump from the previous year, when 2,193 employees were hired.

But the number of workers leaving also increased, from 2,332 in the 2012 budget year to 2,962 last year, according to the Personnel Office report.

Vacancies, overtime

The State Personnel Office said in its report that there is a direct link between state government vacancy rates and overtime.

“If an agency has a vacant position, someone may be required to do the work that would normally be done for that position by working additional hours in response to special circumstances,” the Personnel Office report says.

“This is acceptable in the short term. However, when this occurs regularly or for extended periods of time, it could be an indicator of other issues in the organization.”

The report described overtime as an “unbudgeted liability” that is usually paid with savings generated from vacant jobs. Most employees receive 1.5 times their regular salary for overtime, which is defined as any time in excess of 40 hours a week.

High vacancy rates

With some state agencies having vacancy rates higher than 20 percent, because of the elevated retirement rates and other factors, money intended for hiring employees can be used instead for overtime. That’s despite the fact that not all vacant state government positions are funded by the Legislature.

Meanwhile, New Mexico union leaders say they have heard about many state employees leaving their government jobs specifically because of the heavier job burdens.

“It’s great to earn overtime once in a while, but at the end of the day we’d rather see us staffed fully,” said Miles Conway, communications director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union in New Mexico.

Carter Bundy, AFSCME’s political director in the state, said the high overtime and vacancy rates can lead to longer wait times for members of the public and potentially dangerous conditions in state-run prisons.

“The services aren’t being provided efficiently, and our members end up overworked,” Bundy said. “This isn’t government working the way it should.”

Employment drops

The $36.7 million spent by the state on overtime during the 2013 budget year occurred while the number of rank-and-file state workers was decreasing.

New Mexico had 17,795 rank-and-file employees spread across the state’s various agencies as of Sept. 30. That’s down from 18,253 workers as of December 2012.

Those employees are also known as classified workers; they are hired through the state’s classified personnel system and can only be hired under state personnel rules and fired for cause. They make up the majority of the total state government workforce, which also includes so-called “exempt” employees, who are appointed to their jobs.

In all, the state had about 22,700 workers as of Sept. 30.

In addition to the increase in overtime, the Martinez administration during the 2012 budget year spent more than $30 million the Legislature had appropriated for salaries and benefits on contractual services and other expenditures.

The administration has defended such funding shifts as important to running government efficiently and not out of the ordinary.

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