Sick Time for Overtime: Public-Sector Officials Weigh In

Should governments count paid leave toward overtime?

If an employee takes sick time off, should those hours count toward the calculation of overtime? Say someone had the flu on Monday and took the day off. Then he worked a dozen hours on Friday of the same week. Is he entitled to count those four hours as overtime?

When we first posed that question to B&G readers last month, we didn't anticipate the deluge of responses we'd receive. The majority of them made very similar arguments: Whether or not a government actually pays overtime in such a situation, it shouldn't. In fact, we were startled at the anger that the question seemed to provoke. Many commenters said that employees' getting overtime pay for sick days was "ridiculous," "unfair" or the more modulated "unreasonable."

Karin Hollohan, human resources manager of the Platte River Power Authority in Colorado, explained the common practices in this area: "Counting all hours paid, rather than worked, towards overtime eligibility is a fairly common practice in the public sector, but less so in private industry. The Fair Labor Standards Act does not require paid leave hours to count towards overtime eligibility in a work week, but by policy and often by union contract, they do count for many governmental entities.

"I don't view this as fair or unfair," Hollohan continued, "but [I] think governments should take a business viewpoint and decide whether it makes economic sense to count paid leave hours towards overtime eligibility. It's usually not just sick leave, but also vacation time, holiday time and other paid time off. As pointed out in your article, this can prove very costly. In times of economic cutbacks, it's hard to justify."

Another wrinkle: In some places, overtime can be paid if someone works more than eight hours in a single day, regardless of how many hours they've put in for the full week. Wrote Dennis Hackler, director of Indiana's state personnel department: "This 'over 8 in a day' may have been OK 50 years ago when the physical work was VERY physical, but not today. To blindly pay overtime for any hours less than 40 hours in a work week is foolish."

A handful of respondents voiced concerns that employees could potentially abuse the ability to take a sick day or two and still collect overtime. "From what I can gather, it is sometimes planned out that way by the workers," said Sheri Davis, election manager of Douglas County, Colo. "This is especially prevalent with the uniformed departments, police and fire. [For example,] police who take a vacation day to work a detail that is paid by the municipalities (i.e. election details), and therefore get paid twice for the same workday."

Meanwhile, Mike Warfel, technical specialist for the city of Naperville, Ill., raised an interesting and pragmatic issue that could come with the disallowance of sick hours to accumulate toward overtime: "Let's suppose that we only pay overtime if an employee actually works more than 40 hours in a week," he wrote. "The employee who was off sick on Tuesday now has little incentive to respond to an emergency callout later in the week because he/she knows that they will be paid straight time for the callout hours."

Finally, Ruth Elder, clerk of the Board of Equalization for Thurston County, Wash.'s human resources department, took a wider view. She posed a series of good questions about the use of overtime in general. Stay tuned. We'll try to delve into some of these in future B&G Reports:

"Why is ... unscheduled overtime allowed to happen?" she asks. "Is this a systematic problem involving mandatory shift coverage for law enforcement or corrections operations, or is it something else? If the overtime is being worked by city employees in general government, could they work less overtime and decrease service delivery to save money? Could temporary employees be used to work extra hours in peak periods so as to decrease the cost of overtime? Are employees getting sick because of the stress of working too many extra hours?"

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