After Civil Unrest, COVID-19 And Presidential Election, Chicago Pays Out $367 Million In Overtime To City Workers

Police stand outside of Trump Tower
In this Nov. 7, 2020 file photo, police officers watch crowds gather outside of Trump Tower after Joe Biden was projected to win the presidential election. Chicago paid nearly $367 million in overtime in 2020, which the city blamed on COVID-19, civil unrest and security needs during the election. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ
Police stand outside of Trump Tower
In this Nov. 7, 2020 file photo, police officers watch crowds gather outside of Trump Tower after Joe Biden was projected to win the presidential election. Chicago paid nearly $367 million in overtime in 2020, which the city blamed on COVID-19, civil unrest and security needs during the election. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

After Civil Unrest, COVID-19 And Presidential Election, Chicago Pays Out $367 Million In Overtime To City Workers

The city of Chicago spent $366.9 million in overtime in 2020 to city workers as the city tried to get a handle on the pandemic, civil unrest and security needs for the presidential election.

That’s more than twice as much as the city budgeted for the year and a $45.5 million increase from 2019, according to updated data released by the city’s Budget Department Thursday.

The reason: 2020 was a uniquely challenging year, Budget Director Susie Park told WBEZ. City Hall spent $84.8 million in overtime to address civil unrest, nearly $60 million on COVID-19 response and $14.4 million on enhanced security for the 2020 presidential election. That made up 43% of the final overtime budget for the year.

Park said taxpayers won’t be on the hook for the entire bill. The city is using about $350 million Federal CARES Act dollars to cover COVID-19-related overtime.

This includes additional shifts for Health Department employees who handled the city’s pandemic outreach efforts, as well as overtime caused by staff shortages among first responders who were forced to stay home and quarantine or take leave for other COVID-related needs.

“We had to backfill those employees and that also drove up some of the overtime costs,” Park said.

The city’s data released Thursday included tallies for individual employees. Among those who got paid the most overtime was Ramona Perkins, a 911 operator for the city’s Department of Emergency Management, who banked $157,711.13 in overtime. That’s in addition to the roughly $88,000 annual salary she receives.

Like most city employees, 911 operators are unionized and their collective bargaining agreement stipulates senior members get priority when extra shifts become available.

“And so let’s say someone like Miss Perkins, if she takes that opportunity every time there is overtime availability, that’s how kind of maybe you get to that $157,000 range,” Park said.

Of the top ten overtime earners for 2020, two are 911 operators, four are with the Chicago Fire Department, including CFD Deputy District Chief Scott F. Ronstadt who banked $140,497.50 in overtime.

Park says the city had accounted for these overages when it was putting together the 2021 budget last fall. The estimated shortfall for 2020 was about $800 million. The city balanced the budget through a mix of refinancing efforts, mandatory furlough days for non-city employees and that federal coronavirus relief aid.

Controlling ballooning overtime has been a constant struggle for the city, particularly when it comes to the Chicago Police Department. It’s a budget line aldermen love to rail about every budget cycle. Numerous Inspector General audits have identified widespread abuse of the system, from inadequate record keeping to limited oversight from supervisors, at a cost of millions of dollars in unnecessary overages a year. In 2019, CPD employees banked nearly $140 million in overtime. For 2020, it was $177 million.

Park says her department started out 2020 with a “very aggressive overtime management plan” with all city departments, including CPD. “So [the police department] was kind of on track the first four months, I would say of the year, and then obviously COVID hit, and then following COVID-19, you know, the unrest.”

Park said her department has already begun working with Superintendent David Brown to keep overtime within budget for 2021.

Claudia Morell covers City Hall for WBEZ. Follow her @claudiamorell.