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New policy will restrict county overtime

Wednesday, May 04, 2005
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman

Cook County approved an ordinance Tuesday sharply limiting overtime, but commissioners attacked Board President John Stroger for failing to keep an eye on expenditures.

The policy restricts all employees to 20 hours of overtime per week or 624 hours per year and requires department heads to submit bi-monthly reports on overtime spending.

Stroger floated the new policy Tuesday after a report April 24 spotlighted 100 county workers who each were paid at least $50,000 in overtime last year. Since 1996, overtime costs have reportedly increased from $32 million to $76.7 million.

"We, as commissioners, have sat here time and time again and not seen much progress," said finance committee chairman John Daley (D-Chicago). "A lot of people come in with excuses, but I think the board, quite honestly, is getting very tired with it. And I think the public is too."

Commissioners Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago) and Anthony Peraica (R-Riverside), both running for Stroger's seat next year, tried to criticize Stroger's leadership. Stroger's attempts to silence them sparked a rancorous melee on the board, with commissioners shouting to be heard.

The overtime issue also drew rare criticism from Commissioner Robert Maldonado (D-Chicago), usually a strong Stroger supporter. Maldonado said Stroger's administration wasn't doing enough to fill vacant positions at the county hospitals.

County department managers, usually defended by Stroger's allies on the board, also took a hit for lax oversight.

"We're going to be looking to see that this doesn't happen," said Joseph Mario Moreno (D-Chicago).

Although all commissioners voted to approve the policy, Claypool argued with Stroger over whether the ballooning overtime was Stroger's fault.

Stroger said it was his job to set policy, which is what he was doing, and there was no way he could keep an eye on every county facility.

The worst overtime has been among nursing staff and others at the county's hospitals and clinics. Stroger said he has been battling to fill vacant staff positions, but he acknowledged there was a problem and said hospital administrators have resisted change.

"You can't work the number of hours that some of these people worked and keep your health or be effective," Stroger said. "I sometimes think there are people in leadership roles ... who don't really want to see 100 percent filled positions. Because working overtime is a way for them to get some additional money."

Tom Renkes, executive director of the Illinois Nurses Association, said nurses often are compelled to work overtime because of staff shortages.

After the contentious meeting, Stroger indicated his increasingly vocal critics may needle him into running for re-election.

"I don't know what I'm going to do; I'm thinking it through," Stroger said. "But I won't let my adversaries ... drive me out of government."

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