Why Texas police top the list of overtime earners

U.S. Labor Department confirmed its Wage and Hour Division is investigating the Austin Police Department

By Nicole Chavez and Andra Lim
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas  — Christopher Moore is known within the Austin Police Department as a detective who investigates drunken driving cases, but he's got another unofficial title: the city's top overtime earner.
Moore, a 17-year veteran with the Austin police, earned $112,250.87 in overtime pay in the city's last budget year, effectively doubling his earnings by working an extra 1,577.5 hours — the equivalent of three additional work shifts per week. That was on top of his regular salary of $100,800.96.

Since he joined the traffic enforcement unit about four years ago, he has maintained a "high activity in traffic enforcement," according to his personnel file. Moore, who didn't comment for this article, is on track to earn almost as much overtime this year — and he's not alone.

Of the city's top 20 overtime earners in the 2013-14 budget year, 16 were Austin police officers, including members of the DWI team, a property crimes detective, a K-9 tactical officer and a detective investigating domestic violence cases, an American-Statesman review found.

Those findings come in contrast to the announcement this week that the department faces a federal investigation and a possible lawsuit over whether it owes unpaid overtime to some officers.

The U.S. Labor Department confirmed its Wage and Hour Division is looking into complaints against the Austin Police Department. Documents indicate the issue involves officers' practice of showing up early to work in order to be ready for when their shifts officially start.

The inquiry will sort out whether overtime pay is owed in those instances. The Austin Police Association sent a memo to union members Wednesday saying a lawsuit will be likely.

In an interview with the Statesman before the investigation was announced, Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay said officers often earn overtime for a variety of reasons.

Officers work 10-hour shifts, four days a week, but officials say at least half the force works an extra day each week by picking up more shifts or a second job elsewhere.

"Some officers want to work overtime, and others don't," Gay said. "It's up to the individual."

As a precautionary measure against burnout, the Police Department says officers can't work more than 76 hours per week and 16 hours straight in a 24-hour period — but sometimes, working additional hours is mandatory.

As storms were rolling over Central Texas last month, for instance, "we did a mandatory 'everybody stays on' duty," Gay said. "They were not going to leave until we felt the rains were going to pass and we could have enough staff to handle the road closures."

Officers who are called back to duty could receive one to three hours of overtime pay based on when they were called. Similarly, under the union's contract with the city, police officers who have to appear in court before or after their regular shift receive between one and four hours of overtime pay — even if they don't stay that long at the courthouse.

When it comes to calculating overtime, the contract also says officers can use paid leave time other than sick leave — such as vacation leave — to count toward the 40-hour mark, with overtime pay kicking in after that. A 2006 Statesman analysis found that "nearly every" Austin officer used vacation or other leave and received overtime pay in the same week at least once since 2005.

The spike in fatal traffic crashes this year could result in more overtime expenses, as every crash comes with road closures and hours-long investigations. It's a similar tale with driving-while-intoxicated arrests, in which officers spend hours performing sobriety tests, booking people at the jail and even days at court hearings and trials.

Paying overtime also allows the Police Department to focus on specific crime-fighting initiatives in a way that's "bigger, harder" and uses "more resources," Gay said.

All that overtime doesn't affect officers' pensions, which are tied to their base salary, Gay said.

City spending on police overtime has stayed roughly steady between the 2009-10 and 2013-14 budget years, with a low of $7.6 million and a high of $8.1 million. As of mid-June, the city had spent $7.2 million on overtime for officers in the budget year that ends Sept. 30.

While a forecast for the city's 2015-16 budget includes 82 additional officers, Gay said the department won't be asking for a decrease in the department's overtime budget, which is $7.7 million for officers this year.

Spreading 82 officers throughout the city doesn't represent a dramatic increase in round-the-clock police presence, Gay said, adding that since officers' salaries have gone up, the same overtime budget pays for fewer extra hours of work.

Copyright 2015 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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