August 3, 2016
News that the state paid record amounts of overtime to its work force last year is troubling for more reason than one.
Massive overtime raises the question of whether officials at various agencies have lost their grip on personnel management. But the larger problem is that the bloated paychecks employees take home today translate into bigger pensions down the road for a state that has refused to enact pension reform and has the huge liability to prove it.
Taxpayers who lack old-style pension plans themselves will just have to dig a little deeper to provide archaically generous benefits to others.
The state paid $250 million in overtime last year, according to an analysis by the Scranton Times-Tribune that was published Tuesday in the Post-Gazette. The figure was 10 percent higher than in 2014, but overtime spending had been growing for the past five years. Some agencies, such as the Department of Human Services and Department of Corrections, left vacancies unfilled and pressed employees into extra shifts to cover gaps. The state police incurred overtime providing security for Pope Francis in Philadelphia and scouring the Poconos for reputed cop-killer Eric M. Frein.
The state should minimize overtime and fill vacant positions. That is prudent financially and for other reasons. In February, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale reported that Torrance State Hospital allowed dozens of positions to go unfilled and forced employees to work longer days, with overtime totaling nearly $14.1 million over three years.
Some employees reported that they were too tired to keep going to work, a situation raising red flags about patient care.
The overtime analysis should give new urgency — if any were needed — to calls for pension reform.
Few private-sector employers today provide old-style defined benefit plans. Many workers have to make do with a 401(k) plan, though a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that more than 40 percent of full-time workers in 104 metropolitan areas had neither a defined benefit plan or 401(k).
State employees still have generous defined benefit plans, and some can count overtime toward pensions. The House and Senate have passed different versions of pension reform for future hires, but both measures would continue to provide a defined benefit of some kind.
We have previously said that half a loaf is better than none. When the Legislature returns from its summer, finalizing one of the bills must be a top priority, even if members (who aren’t paid overtime) have to put in extra hours to get it done.