UNION COUNTY, NJ — A report recently released last week by the Office of the State Comptroller looked into what led to high overtime costs in county jails throughout the state and the Union County jail was one of the facilities that came under the comptroller’s microscope.
New Jersey county governments paid county correctional officers more than $185 million for working 3.9 million hours of overtime from 2010 to 2012, the years the Comptroller’s Office targeted it in their 14-page report.
Acting Comptroller Marc Larkin noted that while these costs varied among the 21 correctional facilities in the state, in some cases overtime ran as much as 20 percent of these facilities total expenditures, while others kept this amount under two percent.
Union County expended an average of 19.9 percent of their total budget on overtime over a three-year period from 2010 to 2012, while by comparison Ocean County used 20.1 percent during the same period of time. Salem, Mercer and Middlesex counties also had high overtime rates during the targeted three-year time frame, all of which were close to or over 25 percent.
The highest was Cumberland County, which spent 29.9 percent of their annual budget on overtime during the three-year period. By contrast, Passaic County used 5.5 percent of their budget for this expense, Bergen County 4.4 percent, Warren County 3.3 percent, and Cape May 2.7 percent. Notably, Essex County’s overall overtime compensation came in at 8.4 percent.
The comptroller’s office initiated the report after observing numerous media reports detailing high overtime costs in adult correctional facilities across the state. The objective was to identify the root causes of excessive overtime and recommend ways to reduce these costs.
One thing the investigation found was that proper staffing and appropriate administrative and financial oversight can go a long way to reducing excessive overtime costs.
The report looked closer at some of these oversight weaknesses in the six targeted county jails selected for further investigation, including Union County. Although some had very low overtime costs, they were used to compare how cost saving measures were utilized.
The comptroller’s investigative team looked at all aspects of how these specific county jails came to have lower or higher overtime costs, suggesting ways improvements could be made.
For example, the report pointed out that county jails with low overtime expenses managed this through strong administrative financial oversight and by taking proactive steps to analyze and anticipate staffing needs.
One of the problems the Comptroller’s Office found in counties with excessive overtime, including Union County, was that high ranking officers were eligible to receive overtime.
For example, while Bergen and Cape May counties prohibit overtime captains, the same ranking officer in Union County was allowed to work overtime shifts for lower-ranking officers while still receiving their captains rate of pay. Union County also spent $339,000 in 2011 and 2012 on “administrative overtime,” which the Comptroller’s Office said was not necessary. They cited Bergen County as an example of a county jail that has a policy prohibiting captains from receiving overtime at all.
Overtime in this particular area can and does add up. For instance, in 2011, one Union County captain received $191,000 in annual compensation, which included his $130,000 salary and $61,000 in overtime pay. The report said this “far exceeded compensation paid to any other county jail employee, including the director.”
More specifically, the Union County jail, which had 1,100 male and female inmates during the targeted dates used for the Comptroller’s report, spent approximately $87.2 million in gross compensation to its corrections officers, including $17.3 million for overtime. During that period the average corrections officer was paid $90,000 annually, $18,000 of it overtime pay.
The comptroller found management practices and oversight of overtime spending were inconsistent among counties with high overtime numbers. Some of these counties, the report noted, appeared to be highly focused on both administrative and custodial issues, while others focused primarily on custodial issues.
Strong administrative oversight by the county, the sheriff or jail management, the report noted, contributed to a more efficient and cost effective use of overtime, while poor oversight by management concerning overtime expenditures allowed for excessive overtime spending.
While collective union bargaining agreements dictate the terms of employment for corrections officers throughout the state, it can increase overtime, the report said, by heaping generous benefits on employees or restricting management’s ability to discipline and supervise employees.
In certain instances, collective bargaining agreements “appeared to be extremely favorable to the employees,” leaving the administration with the responsibility of managing the consequences of these liberal leave policies.”
For example, in Union County, according to collective bargaining agreements the comptroller’s office looked at from 2010 to 2012, as many as 20 corrections officers could be out on any given day from Memorial Day to Labor Day for vacation, personal leave or compensatory time. This did not include officers who called out sick or were out due to other types of medical leave.
The report noted that when this was addressed with Brian Riordan, Director of the Union County Department of Correctional Services, he said collective bargaining agreements provided that up to 20 officers could be out during that specific time frame and administration had little discretion in denying leave requests.
These vacant posts, Riordan said, were filled by corrections officers working overtime. The director said generally, during the summer, all 20 of these authorized posts are vacant. As a result, at least 20 vacancies a day must be backfilled, all at the overtime rate, which on average, is almost $61 per hour.
Therefore, the report said, if in a single day 20 vacancies were filled with officers on overtime, it would cost the Union County jail, on average, $10,000 a day, or $3,000 more than they would pay out at the regular rate of pay.
“Not only does this system result in extra costs for the facility but it also creates problems for management, as it can be difficult to find officers to fill so many vacant posts each day,” the report noted, pointing out in Warren County, where 3.3 percent of the overall budget is spent on overtime, management had more discretion in denying certain types of leave if minimum staffing was not met.
Officers in Warren County were also not allowed to take certain types of leave if it would result in overtime for other corrections officers. This was built into collective bargaining agreements.
In fact, management in Warren County also has the power to transfer employees from one shift to another to cover for officers on leave.
In addition to inflated overtime costs, Union County had added administrative costs associated with scheduling.
For example, from 2010 to 2012 the county spent an average of almost $124,000 per year scheduling overtime shifts at the jail. The report noted this was the result of a collective bargaining agreement that allows for a designated overtime caller post filled by a civilian employee.
This means that the post has to be filled 24-hours a day, seven days a week, so each of the three 8-hour shifts can be filled. The report explained that in other counties this role is filled by an on-duty corrections officer as part of their job responsibilities.
“We estimated that the Union County Jail could save at least $89,000 in the first year and $114,000 annually in subsequent years if an overtime calling system was used,” the report indicated.
These automated calling systems, while initially costing around $20,000 to $25,000, do save county jails money. Warren County uses this system and found it helped control overtime hours. Other counties also reported this system saved budget dollars.
The Comptroller’s Office advised Union County to discourage the use of overtime for administrative personnel or complete non-time sensitive administrative tasks prior to it leading to overtime.
For example, in 2011, the Union County jail spent approximately $140,000 and $199,000 respectively on what Riordan described as “administrative overtime.” This overtime, the report indicated, was not used to fill vacant job assignments, but rather to finish administrative tasks or respond to unexpected situations, such as gang disturbances.
The Comptroller’s Office suggested the county jail continue to monitor its administrative overtime spending and look for ways to reduce the amount spent on these tasks.
Lastly, the report found the availability of newly hired officers undergoing training at the police academy delayed filling vacant posts and increased overtime significantly.
Although state law only requires county corrections officers attend a basic training course approved by the Police Training Commission prior to permanent placement, a person can be appointed as a corrections officer on a probationary basis for a year. This, the Comptroller’s Office said, gives an individual a one-year period to complete the required basic training course.
“We found a facility may be able to fill its vacant posts quicker if it offers on-the-job-training to new employees rather than waiting to start the new employee until after a training academy course becomes available,” the report said.
The Comptroller’s Office said Union County is a good example of how the availability of the training academy can increase overtime.
Riordan indicated to the Comptroller’s investigators that in recent years he has had difficulty maintaining an optimal staffing level at the jail due to the inability to hire and train new officers in a timely manner because there was no course scheduled at the academy.
The director explained the reasoning behind the policy of sending new hires to the academy was safety concerns, pension eligibility and contribution rules.
This, the report said, differs from other counties in the state where officers are provided on-the-job-training and then begin to work on a probationary basis until the basic training course is offered.
In this way, the report noted, correctional facilities are able to resolve the staffing shortage more efficiently while still ensuring new officers are appropriately trained and supervised.