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County curtails excessive overtime
Stroger chided for not acting sooner

Wednesday, May 04, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo ,Todd Lighty

Cook County commissioners Tuesday unanimously approved a new policy that caps workers' overtime, although some commissioners questioned why the Stroger administration failed to act sooner to control runaway costs paid to employees.

The policy prohibits employees from working more than 20 hours of overtime each week and places a cap of 624 hours per year--except in emergencies.

Under the new terms, last year's overtime leader, Oak Forest Hospital nurse Usha Patel, would have had her overtime cut by more than three-fourths.

Patel earned $187,500 in overtime, on top of her annual salary of $97,200, by working 2,746 hours of overtime last year.

Patel told the Tribune earlier this week that a nursing shortage has forced her and many of her colleagues to work extra duty. She said the decision to put in for overtime should be left to individual nurses, a position supported by her union, the Illinois Nurses Association.

The new policy, in the form of a resolution proposed by County Board President John Stroger, followed a Tribune report last week about the county's high overtime expenses, which included more than 100 employees last year who made in excess of $50,000.

The resolution was an attempt by Stroger to show county managers and taxpayers that he is serious about getting control of overtime expenditures, which grew from $32 million in 1996 to $76.7 million last year.

Some commissioners, however, questioned why Stroger hadn't taken action sooner rather than seek a largely symbolic resolution from the board.

"The truth of the matter is you can make a phone call to stop this," Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago) said.

"I don't think we have enough managers in place who are capable and qualified," said Commissioner Tony Peraica (R-Riverside), who has already declared his candidacy in next year's election for board president.

Despite the criticism, Stroger said he expected the board to back him in emphasizing to management that excessive overtime expenses need to be curbed.

"I want full support. No vacillation," Stroger told commissioners.

The resolution, to which all commissioners added their names as sponsors, limits the number of overtime hours that an employee can work in a week with an exception for emergencies.

It does not define an emergency but states that written approval for overtime in such situations must be granted by a bureau chief or an elected official.

Stroger's plan also tightens general oversight of overtime usage although it does not spell out consequences for violating the policy.

The overtime guidelines were tightened even further under an amendment successfully submitted by Commissioner Carl Hansen (R-Mt. Prospect).

Hansen's amendment limits employees to working 624 hours of overtime each year, a figure that equals 30 percent of a regular full-time workload.

Taxpayers, Hansen said, are "aghast" at some of the large amounts of overtime Cook County has been paying out.

Commissioner Peter Silvestri (R-Elmwood Park) said the sheer number of hours that some workers put in for has created a perception problem, leaving some taxpayers to doubt whether some county workers are on the job as much as they claim even if there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.

"It's a lot of hours," he said.



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