Examiner Editorial: Less overtime for the same work is not a solution

There was an obvious major fallacy built into the Board of Supervisors’ loudly trumpeted move to ban excessive overtime among some city employees, which had been uncovered during this spring’s annual tug-of-war over balancing the next budget.

Overtime spending drained $71.2 million from last year’s general fund while San Francisco struggled to balance a projected $338 million deficit for the 2008-09 fiscal year. The supervisors felt political heat to do something that resembled strong action to plug the loopholes allowing some 700 municipal workers to be paid more than $20,000 in overtime and a few to collect over $100,000.

So, on Aug. 5, they unanimously passed a new law barring city personnel from earning more than 30 percent of their yearly salaries in overtime.

The only problem is that it is impossible to genuinely cap overtime costs without also reducing the need for overtime. And that can only be accomplished in one of two ways. Either more employees must be hired (hard to accomplish during the present deficit-triggered hiring freeze) or the workload needed for operating The City’s basic services must be substantially cut back.

It is true enough that a certain level of wasted working hours and misuse of personal time off could be detected and eliminated at any large-scale public or private bureaucracy. And a priority effort to do exactly that should be made inside The City government. But the bulk of San Francisco’s multi-million-dollar overtime costs are spent on maintaining minimum shift staffing for public safety, public health and public transit — police, firefighters, sheriff’s deputies, nurses, bus drivers and the like.

In a number of these departments, required staff minimums or performance standards have been mandated either by voter initiatives or by court decisions. Even if San Franciscans were actually willing to save money by having less police patrols or additional bus delays, The City is now prevented by law from expanding vacancies in numerous job categories. And departments are legally unable to allow understaffing on specific types of shifts.

The bottom line is that the Board of Supervisors’ bold-looking gesture to curb overtime abuse cannot accomplish much more than spreading around the overtime pay among more workers. The earnings cap is also rife with loopholes that were probably unavoidable. Exemptions can be made for emergency situations or for jobs requiring special skills.

But since junior employees paid lower salaries will now have improved chances to grab overtime assignments, The City is likely to save a minor amount of money — although not enough to significantly ease the deficit. So the ultimate result of the overtime cap will be that once again City Hall has sought to evade criticism by papering over a serious problem and hoping it goes away before any truly difficult decisions must be made.

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