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Overtime Pay at Caltrans Under State Scrutiny

Times Staff Writer

State officials said Wednesday they are investigating how 25 employees of the California Department of Transportation could have collected overtime pay ranging from $25,000 to $56,000 in violation of state policy.

The employees and a “handful” of supervisors may face disciplinary action over the large amounts of overtime charged during the year ending in August, 1985, said Gene Berthelsen, a Caltrans spokesman.

“We have an investigation going on to see if any of these people who were working extraordinary amounts of overtime were doing it in a fraudulent or dishonest way,” Berthelsen said. “In addition, we’re doing an analysis of overtime use in the department. We are also investigating the supervisors who authorized it.”

2,100 Hours Worth $56,000

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In one case, a bridge designer whose annual salary was $33,000 charged the state an additional $56,000 for 2,100 hours of overtime work between August, 1984, and August, 1985. An average state employee works 1,768 hours a year.

The 25 employees under investigation, all engineers, work at the department’s Sacramento and San Francisco offices and were paid overtime at the rate of 1 1/2 times their normal salary.

At the very least, Berthelsen said, the overtime paid to these employees violated a state policy to spread overtime among a larger group of workers.

The Department of Finance, which first notified the Department of Transportation of the excessive payments, is reviewing records to see if other state agencies are paying similar overtime bills.

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More than a year ago, Legislative Analyst William Hamm warned the Deukmejian Administration that it could cost more to pay overtime than it would simply to budget for sufficient staff positions in the Department of Transportation and other agencies.

“We’ve been harping on this for a couple of years,” Hamm said in an interview Wednesday. “Last year, it was pretty clear to us the reason they were budgeting for excessive overtime was as a means of holding down personnel.”

The Administration has sought to limit the number of employees in a variety of departments, in some cases using overtime payments or contracts with private agencies to get work done.

While this gives the appearance that the size of the state payroll is being kept to a minimum, Hamm said, it sometimes costs the taxpayers more, as in the case of the Department of Transportation.

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“The taxpayers would be a lot better off if we hired the people we need to do the work rather than getting the work out in some circuitous fashion that ends up costing more,” Hamm said.

For example, he said, this year the Air Resources Board is proposing to enter into a contract with a private firm that would cost $80,000 more than hiring two new state employees to do the work.

In the case of the Department of Transportation, Berthelsen said overtime work was necessary because of a dramatic increase in the state’s highway construction program.

He said that while the overtime pay should have been distributed among a larger pool of employees, many engineers apparently were not interested in working extra hours.

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