AUSTIN (KXAN) — City of Austin overtime payments jumped 30% in fiscal year 2022 – exceeding $112 million in all – driven mostly by public safety, emergency services and utilities, according to city data obtained by KXAN.

The Austin Police Department paid the most overtime of any city department. APD employees clocked over 537,000 hours of overtime last fiscal year at a cost of more than $34.7 million. Two APD officers’ ample use of overtime placed them in the top five highest-paid employees in the city.

The top five city employees who received the most in salary and overtime combined – were Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent, whose salary was $403,000; City Manager Spencer Cronk whose salary was $350,000; an Austin-Travis County EMS captain who earned $348,000 by working an additional 3,500 hours of overtime; an APD detective who earned over $339,000 with over 2,700 hours of overtime; and another APD officer who made $315,000 with over 2,700 overtime hours, city data shows. Sargent and Cronk did not receive any overtime pay. KXAN has not yet confirmed if they are eligible to receive it.

The biggest overtime user last fiscal year was an EMS field medic who worked 3,691 overtime hours – adding $146,000 to a $50,000 salary, according to city records.

For perspective, working 40 hours a week for a year takes 2,080 hours. Adding an additional 3,691 hours to that baseline 40-hour work week would require a person to clock an average of nearly 16 hours a day for 365 days straight.

Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie said she knows that medic personally.

“He has three kids, a grandchild and he’s a single earner for his family. Our medics need to do it to make ends meet,” Xie said.

Overtime use jumped 30% last fiscal year, from $86 million in fiscal year 2021 to over $112 million last fiscal year.

The city attributed the overall increase in overtime in the past three years to four main factors: higher job vacancy rates, a larger workload due to services springing back to pre-pandemic levels, wage increases and emergency situations like ice storms and ongoing COVID vaccine distribution, according to Deborah Jennings, a public information officer with the Human Resources Department.

“Austin has come roaring back to life since 2020, pre-pandemic times. Events are back and demands for services have increased. At the same time, city vacancy rates are at an all-time high,” Jennings said. “Essentially, the amount of work has increased while the amount of available staff has decreased.”

Jennings said the city is launching its largest recruitment effort ever, aimed at recruiting across the city and hard-to-fill positions.

An outlier

Citywide, there were 21 employees who logged more than 2,000 hours of overtime last fiscal year. All of them worked in the police, fire and EMS departments – except for one.

One “administrative specialist” in the Economic Development Department worked 2,144 overtime hours last fiscal year – nearly 10-times more than all other employees in that department combined, according to payroll data.

No employee in the Economic Development Department – other than the administrative specialist – worked more 88 hours of overtime last fiscal year, according to the city’s records.

Economic Development spokesperson Veronica Samo said they are aware of those overtime hours. She said many employees have worked multiple roles due to vacancies, COVID-19 emergency response and special projects. The department is “taking steps to reduce overtime usage within the department.”

“These actions include reassigning and separating duties so staff can complete tasks within a regular 40-hour work week, and refreshing supervisors and staff on City of Austin personnel policies (including protocols for using and approving overtime hours).”

Samo added that the department is auditing employee overtime “to ensure there were no violations of city policies, procedures, or protocols.”

Overtime leaders

Public safety and emergency services departments – which must deploy during disasters and have experienced vacancy issues for years – consistently use the most overtime. See the top 10 departments below:

Vacancies across the board

APD paid $34 million in overtime last fiscal year, a 35% increase over the previous year. APD spokesperson Brandon Jones said it is contending with vacancies, and officers are backfilling working overtime to keep up with critical casework and respond to emergencies. A spokesperson said overtime will remain high this year due to staffing shortages.

“The Department monitors overtime to ensure officers are not overworking themselves and are following departmental policy on how much overtime they can work,” according to Jones.

The Austin Fire Department totaled over 446,000 hours of overtime, costing roughly $22 million last year, according to city records.

AFD spokesperson Michelle Tanzola said the department faced vacancy challenges last year and a difficult job market. Since 2018, AFD has had a mandatory four-person staffing rule for all emergency response apparatus.

“While vacancies fell below 80 at the end of FY2022, the need to backfill vacant positions using firefighters working overtime was relatively high all three years,” she said.

AFD offsets overtime costs by reducing training and travel and delaying some equipment and supply purchases. Some AFD overtime is reimbursed by the federal and state governments. AFD said its total overtime amounts differ slightly – by roughly $600,000 – from the Human Resource data because of the timing of payments and reimbursements.

Like AFD, a spokesperson for Austin-Travis County EMS said their department has struggled with vacant positions.

“We’ve experienced a staffing shortage along with the rest of the country, spanning the past two years that has impacted the amount of OT used,” an EMS spokesperson said. “Adding to this are the obligations to numerous special events, disaster responses (Ice Storm Uri, etc) and opening the two additional stations.”

Xie said the department is having a hard time getting people to apply.

“We’re 20% short staffed. In our next academy, we only have 15 people coming in and we should have 30 people,” Xie said. “We just can’t get enough applicants because people can’t afford to live even close to Austin and make $50,000 a year.”

EMS is working to fill vacancies by adding a fourth yearly training academy and a new hiring process that puts certain applicants directly into a paramedic role. The department is also reducing mandatory overtime by cutting the number of people on-call each day and adjusting deployment models, the spokesperson said.

Regarding EMS medics who worked thousands of hours of overtime, the department said they are “always concerned about the work/life balance of our medics,” and “we have measures in place for our personnel that require rest periods between work assignments.”

Austin Water Utility’s overtime dipped in 2020, when the utility was under pandemic stay-at-home orders. Overtime ramped back up when those orders ended and extreme weather events hit the city’s water infrastructure. Last fiscal year, AWU paid out more than $7.3 million in overtime, just a 2% increase over the previous year.

Echoing other departments, AWU said it is experiencing a high vacancy rate – currently about 12%, while the goal is 5-8%. The utility said it uses overtime to manage responses to unplanned or emergency work.

“We are utilizing innovative recruiting strategies to move closer to our goal. For example, this week we are hosting an open house recruiting event on March 11 for treatment plant and technician applicants to assist with the application process,” an AWU spokesperson said.

Like every other department using substantial overtime, Austin Public Works said it, too, is working through staff shortages. A Public Works spokesperson said they have been addressing backlogged work and have seen an increase in city capital projects, wages and overtime emergency work.

“For the City to have the ability to respond to emergencies and other unanticipated events, we must have the ability to pay overtime,” a Public Works spokesperson said. “We can provide more efficient and cost-effective services when our employees put in overtime than we could if we relied on a third party or contractor.”

Find more information on the city’s recruitment effort here.