When the rain kept coming last August and sent East Baton Rouge Parish government workers into overdrive as they helped with the immediate responses to widespread flooding, only one city-parish agency paid its high-level managers for the overtime they worked.
An Advocate review of the overtime payments for Baton Rouge governmental and quasi-governmental entities during the floods shows that the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging is the sole agency to pay out overtime to high-ranking officials. Top brass from other agencies — including the fire chief, police chief and chief administrative officer — pulled extra duty during the floods, but none were compensated with overtime or extra leave time.
More than $2.63 million in overtime checks were cut to more than 1,800 employees who worked during the floods from city-parish government, the East Baton Rouge Parish Recreation and Park Commission, the Capital Area Transit System, the East Baton Rouge Parish Library System and the Council on Aging.
The Council on Aging's overtime payouts of $36,105 included $19,684 to the agency's supervisors. That practice set off alarms in a recent Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office investigation, which noted salaried Council on Aging employees who normally do not qualify for overtime raked in extra cash as they helped to evacuate seniors, brought meals to the elderly and made sure their clients were safe during the floods.
Council on Aging CEO Tasha Clark Amar said in an interview that the Council on Aging only paid overtime money to salaried employees during the floods because the Federal Emergency Management Agency instructed them to authorize the payments. The federal agency paid for $12,585 of the supervisors' overtime, the audit said.
Governmental agencies can apply for FEMA to reimburse part of their disaster overtime payments at the rate of the federal reimbursement for a disaster.
"We didn't know what the other local agencies did," said Amar, who pointed out that Council on Aging employees do not fall under the Civil Service regulations that apply to city-parish employees. "All we did was follow [FEMA's] directions. We didn't know if people were getting overtime or not. It's not like we were calling other agencies and saying, 'Are you getting overtime?' We were working."
The Council on Aging updated its overtime policy after the 2016 floods to reflect some of its "exempt employees" — usually the highest paid at the agency — could be paid time-and-a-half during "emergency situations" when approved by the CEO. Amar said they made the change at the bequest of FEMA for it to retroactively apply to the August floods.
Before September 2016, the Council on Aging's overtime policy did not make mention of exempt employees, nor did it reference work during disasters. Instead, it merely said nonexempt employees would be paid time-and-a-half when they worked more than 40 hours a week.
But the May audit took issue with Amar's explanation, saying it seemed unlikely FEMA asked for the policy change given FEMA's own public assistance program policy guide says the federal agency determines overtime eligibility based on an applicant's pre-disaster labor policy. And the FEMA employee who worked with the Council on Aging told auditors that she never instructed the council about overtime eligibility for individual employees.
"It does not appear that the Council was eligible to receive reimbursement of disaster related overtime from FEMA for employees with annual salaries exceeding $40,000," auditors wrote. "However, we found that the Council’s request for disaster-related overtime included six employees who have annual salaries that exceed $40,000."
Amar and the Council on Aging's legal counsel disputed the auditors' assertions about the overtime pay and asked that the section be deleted from the report.
Amar pointed to an email that a FEMA specialist sent to her about the overtime payouts, saying "this was not something that you tried to slip by us, and it was very easy to work with all of you." But the same specialist also emailed auditors saying FEMA did not instruct the Council on Aging to change its overtime policy so managers could qualify for reimbursements.
Amar stood to gain the most from the Council on Aging's disaster overtime policy change as she is the agency's highest-paid employee. She also received the most money in flood-related overtime between August 12 and September 16. Records of the flood overtime payments from the Council on Aging show Amar earned $6,741 in overtime for working an extra 139 hours. Her annual salary is $101,238.
Amar could have earned even more, but the overtime paid to her and the Council on Aging's other managers was calculated at a straight-time rate instead of the time-and-a-half rate outlined in the disaster overtime policy. She said FEMA calculated their overtime hours at a straight-time rate.
Asked whether it was fair for a CEO to be compensated for overtime work during the floods, Amar pointed to the long hours involved in evacuating seniors from the Council on Aging's Dumas House Senior Center, which flooded. She also mentioned connecting with seniors who evacuated to other states and trying to deliver food and supplies to those cut off from other help.
"I don't know what your standard of fairness is, but I can say this: Two days before the storm and every day during, I was here day and night," Amar said.
Newly installed Council on Aging Board Chairwoman Jennifer Moisant said in an email that the Council on Aging followed FEMA's rules and regulations. "To compare us with other agencies is not reasonable or fair to us or the other agency," Moisant said.
However, the Council on Aging's disaster overtime policy, and types of employees earning overtime during disasters, are out of line with four other Baton Rouge agencies that paid overtime during the floods.
City Hall's disaster overtime policy forbids "executive exempt employees" — which includes department heads, most assistant department heads and a number of key players in the Mayor-President's Office — from receiving overtime pay or extra leave time in exchange for their work during an emergency.
While top executives in East Baton Rouge Parish cannot earn overtime pay during disasters, people in similar positions in other parishes have earned it in the past. Top officials in New Orleans earned overtime after Hurricane Isaac in 2012, with a dozen high-ranking employees earning more than $10,000 apiece, according to reports in The Times-Picayune and WVUE-TV.
In Baton Rouge, city-parish employees in lower positions — known as nonexempts and deemed "essential" during emergencies — received big payouts after the flood. City Hall's policy allows them to receive two times their normal hourly pay rate during disasters.
Those employees include people in various public works departments, Fire Department employees, police officers, Emergency Medical Services unit commanders and more. And while most earned their overtime money in the first few weeks during and after the floods, some are still earning the extra dollars for their ongoing debris collection efforts.
An environmental specialist for the city-parish earned the most money during the floods, with a payout of $28,209 for the 650 hours he worked. The second-highest earner was a public works operations manager, who earned $21,683 in overtime for 308 additional hours. Both were involved in debris collection.
In the public safety realm, the highest-paid Fire Department employee was a technician who earned $15,337 for the 244 hours he worked during the floods. Fire stations flooded and sustained other damage in August, and multiple technicians racked up overtime hours fixing the stations.
The Baton Rouge Police Department officer who racked up the most overtime payments during the floods was a sergeant who earned $13,310 after working 264 hours. And for Emergency Medical Services, a shift supervisor earned $8,184 after working 125 hours.
City Hall's payout for all who worked during the floods totaled $2.53 million.
The East Baton Rouge Library System also does not allow its higher-level, exempt employees to qualify for overtime pay during emergencies. Five maintenance staff employees for the system earned overtime on August 15 and August 16 during flood recovery, with none being paid more than $1,000 and the total amount topping out at $3,194.
CATS overtime payments for bus operators are governed by a contract with their union that specifies how employees are chosen to pick up extra work. But maintenance shop employees, like mechanics, are paid time-and-a-half for all hours above 40 hours in a workweek.
CATS paid out $35,259 in flood-related overtime to nearly 60 employees during the floods. A mechanic earned the most, receiving $1,779.
BREC splits its exempt employees into three camps. Their disaster overtime policy specifies that exempt employees who are on field staff and in administrative positions are to continue to receive their regular hourly pay rates for each hour worked during a disaster.
The "executive exempt" employees — like those whom the city-parish does not pay overtime during disasters — are to receive half of their regular pay rate for the extra hours they work during disasters. But BREC's superintendent, assistant superintendents and other brass did not earn any overtime money during the floods, based on BREC's payroll records from July 30 to August 26.
For BREC's pay period between August 13 and August 26, 60 employees received overtime payouts while several BREC parks and recreation centers flooded across the parish. BREC's total overtime payout for the period was $13,569, with each employee earning less than $1,000 in overtime.