The latest money-related controversy shaking City Hall involves overtime. Actually, make that excessive overtime. The city's new internal auditor, Loretta Alonzo, told city council last night that overtime costs could clock in at $5 million by the end of 2013. That's a lot of overtime, you may joke. That's a scandal, deficit hawks may say lividly. That $5 million figure is across all city services, but the focus of much of the discussion is around the one service that takes up one-fifth - or $1 million - of that cost, Guelph Transit. According to the city, there's a 25 per cent rate of daily absenteeism among transit employees, with some employees taking as many as 50 sick days per year. If the average number of days worked a year, accounting for weekends and two weeks vacation, is 250, that means that some employees are off sick one-fifth of the year.
Since the release of the report on November 12, several steps have been taken by the city to rein in overtime costs. For instance, Chief Administrative Officer Ann Pappert put a freeze on all overtime excluding emergency situations. Also, the city's The city's five executive directors formed an "overtime task force," which, for 90 days, will investigate ways to implement Alonzo's 39 recommendations to limit overtime in consultation with city staff and union leaders. Other recommendations include further measures for more transparency, more managerial control and better record keeping over how overtime is spent.
“This audit signals the degree to which the City’s leadership is committed to improvement and transparency,” said Pappert in a city press release. “By many accounts, overtime audits are among the toughest for cities. We’re one of only two municipalities we know of to call for a comprehensive overtime audit. There’s work to be done and change needs to occur. But I’m proud of this administration for having the courage to proactively address areas where improvement is possible.”
In the midst of the discussion though, the majority of the focus has been on Guelph Transit's use of overtime. From the auditor's report:
"It is the Auditor’s opinion that this service area is facing critical overtime and attendance issues that are unacceptable. Employee actions with respect to absenteeism and overtime are not in the best interest of the City and are inconsistent with corporate values and border on misappropriation."
Adding insult to injury is a note that sick days "mysteriously" go up around the time of stat holidays. As you may know, Transit operates on nearly all stat holidays, running buses on a Sunday schedule. Altogether that's quite a damning analysis, but don't think that Transit or its labour representatives in the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1189 are going to take the matter lying down.
"We believe the auditor’s report about Guelph Transit workers allegedly taking 40 to 50 sick days off with no pay and abusing overtime hours is grossly misrepresented," Andrew Cleary, president of ATU 1189 told the Guelph Tribune. "We were and are still understaffed. In fact, we are short over six operators per week. This fact should be enough to raise a concern about how we cover the weekly shortfall – the answer being overtime."
Cleary isn't alone in his appraisal of the situation. "I don't feel that there is a culture of entitlement," Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 241 president Misty Gagne said to the Guelph Mercury shortly after the report was made public. "Our culture is to provide great public services, and that's what we do — I'd like to know where that finding came from."
The full 45-page report can be read online here, so Gagne should know now where "that finding" came from. One thing is certain though, this has kicked up a hornets nest on council. Walking a fine line with little wiggle room and an increasing bottom line due mostly to increasing payouts for personnel in the form of pensions and benefits, it seems that deficit hawks have found something they can sink their beaks into. City employees don't engender a lot of support to begin with, so it will be interesting to see what comes of the matter of overtime over the next couple of months, and what impact it might have on the upcoming election campaign.