2003-04-12 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart Mirsky

The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart Mirsky

Is Overtime An Entitlement?

The other day (actually it was the other night) I was awakened from a sound sleep by the rumbling of heavy trucks outside my window.

Slowly rising to consciousness, I gradually recognized the familiar, if irritating, sound of idling compaction trucks and banging garbage cans in the dark street below. It was the Sanitation Department crew making one of its not infrequent nightly runs. There was no snow on the ground or in the offing so I started wondering why they were on night duty once again!

I knew, of course, that very often the city must alter crew shifts to meet various weather-related emergencies, the most common being snow storms. But the night in question was clear and warm with no snow forecasted. Why put the guys on overtime, then, especially in this period of fiscal crisis when the Mayor says there is no waste to cut; only taxes to be raised?

And why disturb the sleep of the neighborhood?

Well, of course the answer was pretty simple and I knew it from my days in the Sanitation Department. Overtime is considered by many city workers, however unofficially, to be a regular part of their annual pay package, i.e., they believe they are entitled to it. I remember during those long snowless years that we endured back in the nineties, how Sanitation management would worry about finding enough snow-related activity to justify spending out its snow budget before year-end! But why? Surely that is not the best way to manage a budget . . . or a department.

Well, most of the Department of Sanitation’s management came up through the ranks. They supplemented their pay by overtime in their day, just like the guys on the ground are doing today. Moreover, many of those in so-called "managerial" positions in the Department are actually still in "line" titles, which means, of course, that they continue to be represented by the same unions that represent the crews. So they have common interests.

Even more telling, because of their job titles, many of these "managers" are eligible to earn overtime along with the guys! Of course this inflates their annual salaries and results in a double whammy for the city: increased pay in the year it was earned, along with a higher base when their pensions are finally calculated. Holy conflict of interest, Batman!

So, the city’s Sanitation Department does its darnedest to spend its overtime budget, whether they need to or not. Of course, even when it’s needed, how do we, the taxpayers and recipients of this essential service, know that it’s being spent in the most cost/efficient manner, given the modus operandi which determines its use? The answer, of course, is that we don’t. So we get those late night pick-ups that are often loud enough to wake the dead, let alone the lighter sleepers among us, and garbage that often sits for days on end at the curb, awaiting the Department of Sanitation’s kindly ministrations. Never mind the near total abandon many of the crews exhibit when they pick the stuff up!

I’m thinking here of garbage that falls out of the cans and ends up on the street after the trucks have passed through. And of cans tossed cavalierly about, ending up in the gutter or in front of our neighbors’ houses instead of our own. (I’ve lost more cans that way than I care to count). Sometimes, too, the crews won’t even deign to take what we leave, if it looks too heavy or too bulky! And there have been many times that I’ve found some stuff taken and some left behind, without any obvious rhyme or reason to the apparent selection process! I guess we just ought to count ourselves lucky that they don’t also come out and give us tickets when garbage gets left like this, since they are also empowered to do that! (Fines for this might help pay for some of those overtime costs. Hey, there’s an idea!)

Excess overtime expenditures and delayed pick-ups, with garbage sitting on the streets, sometimes for days on end, attracting rodents and other foraging beasts to rifle through the cans and scatter the "goods" to the four winds! And increases to our property taxes and maybe other increases soon to come?

What was it that Mayor Bloomberg said back on November 14, 2002 when he was so busy justifying the tax increases he was proposing to close the gargantuan budget gap the city was facing: "You can’t just say let’s go cut corruption, waste and meaningless programs. Because fundamentally they don’t exist."

Yeah, right!

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