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Cook County's overtime time bomb
County workers stash overtime hours now -- for high pay later

Monday, April 27, 2009
Chicago Sun-Times
by Mark J. Konkol

If Joseph Lafata were to retire anytime soon from his job as a maintenance supervisor with the Cook County Highway Department, he'd have a nice cushion to take with him into retirement: a $60,000 payout for more than 1,000 overtime hours that he has accumulated -- hours that, in theory, he's supposed to take as paid time off.

County highway workers have amassed mountains of what's called "time-off overtime" -- TOOT, for short -- a Chicago Sun-Times review of county records shows, with Lafata piling up more overtime than anyone else.

The idea behind TOOT is this: Rather than pay county highway employees for all the extra hours they might end up working from week to week, some of them are allowed to take paid time off later.

But rather than do that, many have been accumulating it and then cashing in when they retire or leave their county job months or years later -- when their salaries are higher. Then, they are paid for that time at their final salary, which is sometimes much higher than what they were making when they accumulated the time.

In all, county records obtained by the Sun-Times show, highway workers have banked 44,000 hours of overtime currently worth about $2.2 million. Forty-one people -- more than 14 percent of everyone on the Highway Department payroll -- have each stacked up more than 300 hours, or nearly eight weeks.

Another 50 highway workers are sitting on 200 to 300 hours of accumulated overtime, records show.

County Commissioner Forrest Claypool says "this is an outrageous accumulation of time, and it should not be allowed."

His solution? "The only way to fix this is to fire the highway superintendent. ... The superintendent is either not managing the work force or allowing the politically connected to game the system. Employees are running the department for their own benefit -- and taxpayers are getting handed the bill."

County Board President Todd Stroger's staff declined to make Highway Supt. Rupert Graham available for an interview.

Stroger spokeswoman Chris Geovanis says highway workers who have accumulated the most overtime did so by doing an important job: handling snow removal. There aren't enough people on staff to manage when the area sees a heavy snow season, she says, so some workers end up amassing huge amounts of banked overtime.

But, in fact, the top 10 job titles linked to the most accumulated overtime per person include engineering assistants, machinists, boilermakers and administrative analysts, an analysis of county records shows. None of those workers was involved in snow removal.

Engineering assistant Michael Ponticelli, who makes $74,000 a year, has the second-most accumulated overtime, with more than 979 hours -- or $53,000 -- due him. Next on the list: engineer Bharat Patel, who makes $81,610.88 a year and has cached 824 hours of overtime. Maintenance supervisor James Poelsterl has banked 775 hours.

None of those employees returned calls seeking comment.

Questions about Highway Department overtime were first raised in January, when the Sun-Times reported that maintenance workers had called in sick, took vacation or put in for paid time off on the same days they were being given overtime compensation. Also, highway workers responding to snow and ice emergencies almost always got paid for their entire scheduled shift, whether they worked that shift or not, time sheets and overtime reports showed.

Contributing: Art Golab

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