San Jose’s overtime cost highlights shortage of skilled trade workers
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo.

    Overtime is the only way to keep certain key services afloat in San Jose, with the search for skilled labor a constant struggle.

    The city relies on some employees working longer hours and picking up extra shifts to keep operations running, a practice officials and experts say is fueled by persistent vacancies and uncompetitive compensation.

    The city paid roughly $78 million in overtime to more than 4,300 employees in 2020, data shows. The majority of the money—roughly 87%—went to paying police officers and firefighters, whose departments accrued $47 million and $20.5 million in overtime, respectively.

    The San Jose Police Department has suffered chronic staffing shortages for years, a recent audit found. This has led to unprecedented spending for the last decade on overtime wages for officers who pick up open shifts.

    But staffing woes are a widespread issue in City Hall for several specific jobs, highlighting a growing shortage of skilled workers in the region, a San José Spotlight review of city data found.

    There are 484 city employees who earned more than $50,000 in overtime last year. They all worked in police, fire, transportation, environmental services and public works.

    Excluding first responders, electricians, mechanics, maintenance workers and supervisors often got the highest overtime pay in their departments.

    At the transportation department, roughly 70% of all overtime pay last year went to those in maintenance work, with one maintenance supervisor earning $99,913.40 in overtime last year, city data shows.

    "We are constantly recruiting, but unable to fill all our vacant positions, particularly in infrastructure maintenance," Colin Heyne, spokesperson for the transportation department, told San José Spotlight.

    The transportation department turned to a third-party electrical contractor to help with the workload in 2019, but the costs were significant and much more than using overtime, Heyne added.

    Roughly 140 city workers in skilled trades earned at least $20,000 in overtime last year. Most of these workers were not top earners in their departments, but their overtime wages far exceeded others. The average overtime pay for San Jose—excluding first responders—is $5,119, data shows.

    Persistent vacancies and uncompetitive pay

    City officials and experts blame the shortage of qualified workers and high living costs in the region for the excessive use of overtime. San Jose is the second most expensive place to rent in the country.

    According to Staffing Industry Analysts, an advisory group based in Mountain View, 68% of employers surveyed in a September report have had difficulty hiring skilled trade workers since the COVID-19 pandemic started. More than a third are understaffed.

    The city can't compete with the private sector in hiring skilled trade workers right now, Frances Edwards, a professor of public administration at San Jose State University, told San José Spotlight. The city often can't pay as much as a private company and its hiring process is longer.

    "For the city, (it takes) six months between when you recognize you need an employee and when they're standing in front of you," Edwards said. "Whereas that's usually two weeks for the private sector."

    This is especially true for a team in the Environmental Services department.

    To properly run the San Jose-Santa Clara wastewater treatment plant, the city needs  nine electricians and eight process control specialists, spokesperson Jennie Loft said.

    The department is struggling to fill six vacancies, Loft added, meaning the team is understaffed by 34%.

    The sewer plant serves 1.4 million residents and more than 17,000 businesses in eight cities, according to the city. It needs to run 24 hours a day to keep up with demand, Environmental Services Director Kerrie Romanow told San José Spotlight.

    "The wastewater facility is unlike any other city operation," she said. "We can't shut it down and take a break. This facility has operated nonstop since 1955."

    The regional wastewater facility is also in the midst of the largest capital improvement project in the history of San Jose, she added, at a cost of $1.4 billion.

    Steve Colby, a specialist on the wastewater treatment plant team, plays a key role in keeping the capital improvement projects on track, Romanow said. Colby has been earning between $155,000 and $172,000 in overtime every year since at least 2018. He did not respond to an inquiry about his job duties.

    "We do know that we need more people, and we've made offers to people and they've turned them down because of compensation," Romanow said. "Now we need to take another approach, but certainly it is a lot of overtime pay."

    With the current shortage in skilled trade workers, overtime allows San Jose to ensure adequate staff coverage, Edwards said.

    "Overtime may be the cheapest way to ensure that properly trained people are doing critical jobs," Edwards told San José Spotlight, adding that new hires require pension, medical benefits, worker's compensation and other coverage. "The high cost of living locally often makes hiring more people difficult."

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter. 

    Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article erroneously reported the cost of the regional wastewater facility project.

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