Public Officials See Salaries Inflate With COVID Overtime

Last year, 1,226 Erie County employees received $5.9 million in overtime related to the coronavirus pandemic. Of those employees, 54 were political appointees who received $1.3 million of the total.

(TNS) — Erie County, N.Y., Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein collected $183,414 in overtime last year — or 91 percent of her base salary. Her total compensation of $385,726 reflected 1,266 hours of overtime. That makes her one of the highest paid employees in government.

A new report by County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw shows that Burstein was the largest single recipient of taxpayer-funded overtime. It also shows that top Sheriff's Office administrators continued to receive more Covid-19 related overtime than members of any other department in county government.

Of the 26 non-union appointees who each received more than $10,000 in overtime covered by federal stimulus money last year, 42 percent were Sheriff's Office administrators who were paid $483,582, collectively.

Among all county employees, 1,226 staffers received $5.9 million in overtime related to the new coronavirus health crisis last year and saw their paychecks grow thanks to federal CARES Act stimulus money awarded to Erie County. But of the nearly $6 million in Covid-19-related overtime paid out last year in federal funds, 54 political appointees received $1.3 million of it. In other words, those 4.4 percent of the workers got 22.1 percent of the money.

These government administrators would not typically receive overtime pay. However, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz allowed all non-union, managerial confidential employees to accept overtime pay for their Covid-19 related work because he said his administration received explicit guidance that CARES Act federal stimulus money allows non-union managers to collect it.

"I think a lot of people are going to be very angry that the health commissioner makes more than the governor, the vice president of the United States, and has a salary that is comparable to Dr. Anthony Fauci," Mychajliw said, referring to the federal government's leading infectious disease physician.

Administration spokesman Peter Anderson said in an email that Poloncarz was unavailable to comment on the report Thursday and that it was inappropriate to comment on the draft findings.

"What we've got here is a draft 'report' cobbled together by the comptroller's team with the usual inaccuracies and accusations to continue the comptroller's monotonous attacks on the people who are trying to keep the community safe," Anderson said. "Please bear in mind that the Health Commissioner not only leads the response to the pandemic, but also continues to oversee all the non-COVID responsibilities her department has, which are numerous."

He also said it was ridiculous that Mychajliw is criticizing hard work done by other county employees when the comptroller has been repeatedly accused of not coming into work. Anderson did not cite any specific examples of report errors.

County leaders have previously defended the overtime payments by providing time sheets, reports and verbal explanations showing how administrators devoted extra work time to the public health crisis since it broke in March. The additional hours listed far exceed how much money these employees would have been able to recover in the form of compensatory time off, they said.

But the practice of allowing government appointees to collect so much federally funded overtime is out of step with what other counties in the state have done. According to research shared by the Comptroller's Office, other counties have either awarded much more limited amounts of overtime money to non-union employees, or none at all. In response to a FOIL request, New York City officials sent the Comptroller's Office an email indicating that no Covid-19-related overtime money was paid to any non-union appointees.

Any overtime for county employees has long-term cost implications for taxpayers because state government pensions are based on an employee's highest compensation years.

Burstein's Overtime

Dr. Burstein does not earn as much Dr. Fauci, whose pay exceeds $417,000, but according to See Through NY, which collects public payrolls from across the state, Burstein's compensation for last year would make her one of the highest paid employees in state, city or county government.

Burstein has been the top administrator spearheading the county's Covid-19 response. Anderson has previously pointed out that Erie County is one of the few counties in the state with its own public health lab and is much more involved in the statewide response to Covid-19 than other communities.

Burstein's hourly rate of pay is higher than other county employees. But she takes the top spot for both overtime hours — 1,266 — and compensation.

Sheriff's Office Overtime

While Burstein may have logged more Covid-19 related overtime hours and pay than any other individual employee, the Sheriff's Office has been the largest overtime recipient — by far — of any unit of county government.

While 11 Sheriff's Office administrators received more than $10,000 in overtime totaling $483,582, seven of them ranked in the top 10, with amounts ranging from $45,353 to $79,329. The other overtime recipients listed in the comptroller's report were spread over eight different departments.

The Democratic-led Erie County Legislature has previously taken the Sheriff's Office to task for its Covid-19 related overtime claims, noting that these claims are coming at a time when the county inmate population is falling to all-time lows due to bail reform laws.

Meanwhile, Mychajliw, a Republican — as is Sheriff Timothy B. Howard — has focused his attention on criticizing overtime received by members of Poloncarz's Democratic administration.

The most he would say about the high amount of overtime claimed by the Sheriff's Office is, "If you're a political employee and a managerial confidential employee, I don't care where you work, you should not get one dime in Covid-related overtime, or any overtime, because you're a salaried employee. Political appointees who sign up know the rules going in."

Only elected officials in county government are actually salaried, which is why none of them claimed overtime, but while non-union administrators are considered hourly workers, they are normally only entitled to comp time for extra hours worked.

Howard did not respond to a request for comment, but in an email, spokesman Scott Zylka defended the overtime claims, saying "... the Sheriff's Office needed to develop and implement new policies and procedures to react to the COVID-19 pandemic for both employees and inmates," as well as for other units, including "the road patrol platoons, Investigative Services, Narcotics and Intelligence Unit, and the Special Services Unit."

"The agency also worked closely with the County's Department of Health for compliance and security for COVID-related activities, including testing sites, hospitals, and quarantine locations," he wrote, as well as in implementing "the mandates handed down from federal and state agencies."

(c)2021 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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