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Workers get OT on their off days
COOK COUNTY | Highway Dept. practice draws Quigley's ire

Thursday, January 08, 2009
Chicago Sun-Times
by Mark J. Konkol

Last winter, Cook County Highway Department maintenance employees called in sick, took vacation or put in for paid time off on the same days they earned overtime compensation, a Chicago Sun-Times review of payroll records shows.

On Feb. 1, for instance, three employees at the LaGrange Park garage worked seven hours overtime and also were paid sick or vacation time for their regular shift. Each of those workers was compensated for 18.5 hours that day.

Similar timekeeping issues occurred on at least 17 workdays in January and February last year. In fact, highway workers responding to snow and ice emergencies almost always got paid for their entire scheduled shift whether they worked or not, time sheets and overtime reports show.

And because most employees receive "time off overtime" hours rather than cash, some workers accumulated enough so-called "TOOT" to get paid for staying home during much of July and August, records show.

After it was brought to his attention by the Sun-Times, county Highway Supt. Rupert Graham Jr. said he's not sure if workers should be allowed to take paid time off on a day they also work overtime, but he would review the policy.

That's not good enough for county Commissioner Mike Quigley, who called for changing the timekeeping practice. "It doesn't pass the sniff test. A typical person in the private sector would never be allowed to do that. Whether or not it's OK with Graham, it's not OK with the public, and it shouldn't be," Quigley said. "It's a self-induced pay increase. This is a problem on its face."

Graham said his department's top priority is keeping county roads safe when a snow or ice emergency hits. Road crews and supervisors are not allowed to take vacation in the winter and must be available 24 hours a day. During a harsh winter, crews sometimes work more than 16 hours a day several days in a row and often get "burned out," he said.

Quigley argues that employees shouldn't be paid for taking off their scheduled shift when they work different hours the same day.

"If we need people to work in an emergency, let them work," he said. "But you don't have a sick day combined with it so it's more overtime."

Because highway workers accumulate so much TOOT during the winter, there are fewer employees to get roadwork done in the summer.

For instance, road supervisor John Macchitelli took 21 days off and got paid to leave work early seven more times in July and August. Bloom Township Democratic Committeeman Terry Matthews -- an administrative assistant who supervises snow crews -- took 21 days off during the same two-month period.

Macchitelli and Matthews were among those who took paid time off during their regular shift and worked overtime on the same day.

Macchitelli said he has accumulated 95 sick days and 700 hours of TOOT. He said highway crews are "short and stretched thin a bit" during the winter months.

"How do you expect a guy to be on call 24 hours a day and not get any time off?" he said. "You can't just sit at home and wait for a call; that won't work. If you want to alleviate all these problems, pay everybody overtime."

Matthews, who also is a village trustee in South Chicago Heights, declined comment.

The practice of accumulating TOOT can be lucrative. Some highway workers have collected so much TOOT, they take home huge payouts when they retire. For instance, if a $70,000-a-year supervisor were to cash out 700 hours at retirement, he would get about $23,500.

Graham said the timekeeping policies were in place before he took the superintendent post. It forces him to prioritize, and snow and ice removal take priority for safety reasons, he said.

"I don't think it's a policy question, I think it's a financial resource question," he said. "If there was more money in the budget for overtime, things could be done differently."



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