[StBernard] Cashing In After Isaac: Best of both worlds in St. Bernard

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Tue Apr 30 08:00:46 EDT 2013

Cashing In After Isaac: Best of both worlds in St. Bernard

Updated: Apr 29, 2013 10:20 PM CDT
Written by: Kim Holden - email

New Orleans, La. -
For the past six months, FOX 8 has uncovered excessive overtime payouts
during Hurricane Isaac to department heads and top executives in local
government. As a result of some fat paychecks, New Orleans and Plaquemines
Parish both say their policy needs to change.

As another hurricane season approaches, we focus on St. Bernard Parish,
where there are still sporadic signs of hurricane damage -- but much of it
dates back seven and a half years, when Katrina decimated the area.

During Hurricane Isaac last August, most homes inside the levee protection
system fared well. Outside the levee protection system, Isaac drove a
12-foot storm surge into Delacroix. Hopedale, Shell Beach and Yscloskey also
saw damage.

Essential parish workers were required to put in long hours the week of the
storm. But for salaried employees, the pay plan was much different than
what they saw during Katrina.

In 2005 and 2006, St. Bernard Parish paid millions of dollars in overtime.
Salaried parish administrators, normally exempt from making overtime, earned
time and a half for hours worked.

The parish council changed that rule in 2006, right before now-Parish
President Dave Peralta was hired as Chief Administrative Officer.

Peralta says, "It was changed to reflect that salaried employees or exempt
employees would not receive time and a half any longer."

Instead, during a disaster, they're paid at a regular hourly rate for all
hours worked and even those not worked.

"Usually in those times, there are four to five hours a day that you have to
stand down, take a break or rest," says Peralta. "During that period of
time, yes, they are compensated because they're not allowed to leave."

On top of that, they can also receive additional time off and, in the case
of Isaac, salaried workers were awarded four comp days, in addition to
getting paid.

"They get double basically, because they get additional leave if other
employees are excused from work, which they often will be. These folks were
getting straight time plus additional leave time. Not bad," says Brooke
Duncan, III, a local labor and employment attorney.

Duncan has evaluated the different emergency overtime pay policies in area
parishes. Referring to St. Bernard's policy, he says, "It's a fairly
generous package. Again, not saying that the work they did wasn't highly
valuable, but even comp time has a cost to the parish. All that needs to be
added up to see what is the total outlay."

In St. Bernard, the highest-paid employee the week of Isaac was CAO Jerry
Graves, who earns about $93,000 a year. He made a little more than $5,000
extra that week for working an additional 114 hours.

Graves got paid 24 hours a day, four days that week. The four comp days he
received are worth about $1,430.

Director of Public Works Hillary Nunez, who earns $85,000 a year, made an
extra $3,900 for working an additional 96 hours the week of Isaac. His comp
time is valued at a little over $1,300.

And John Rahaim, manager of the Office of Emergency Preparedness, got paid
an additional $3,000 for almost 99 extra hours that week. The parish awarded
him four comp days worth $960.

Peralta says the comp days aren't a sure thing, though. "The comp days are
at the discretion of the parish president because I may or may not be able
to allow them to take it off, depending on the volume of work created after
a storm, but also through the rest of the year," says Peralta. "It just may
not be feasible."

Our focus on how other parishes handle disaster pay began six months ago.
FOX 8 first uncovered exorbitantly high payouts after Isaac to deputy mayors
in New Orleans, who all make on average more than $150,000 a year.

The six top aides to Mayor Mitch Landrieu collectively raked in more than
$100,000 in emergency pay and overtime, because of a 2010 rule change that
largely went unnoticed.

"If FEMA didn't reimburse the city, the city essentially... we would have
had some serious layoffs," said Robert Hagmann, a Civil Service Department

The Civil Service Commission is now considering changing the rule again to
limit that extra pay for higher-paid managers during emergencies.

Jefferson Parish doesn't pay anything extra to department heads or those on
salary during declared emergencies, saying that salaried workers are
expected to put in longer hours. But they do receive up to a week of comp
time, depending on how much they worked.

In St. Tammany Parish, the disaster overtime policy for salaried workers, in
place since 2000, is simple. They get paid time and a half for every hour
worked over their normal 35 to 40 hour week.

Parish President Pat Brister agrees with the policy. "These people go above
and beyond in my mind and they certainly deserve the OT," says Brister.
"They are making decisions every minute, decisions that could be life or

Plaquemines Parish is also looking at possible changes after one top manager
earned $40,000 in overtime during Isaac, half his annual salary.

Parish President Billy Nungesser told FOX 8 in February, "When I first saw
the figure, I and a lot of people were shocked at the amount of money, so I
ordered an investigation."

In that parish, essential personnel get paid double time for all hours
worked during any mandatory evacuation. They earn time and a half for extra
hours worked before and after a mandatory evacuation.

"It just goes to show a hodgepodge of pay practices in local parishes and
how they account for people called in for emergencies," says Duncan.

Peralta says every parish is unique and he too has no plans to change the
disaster pay plan. "We're different in a lot of different areas," says
Peralta. "Circumstances tend to dictate our laws, even on a national level."

While change is on the way in a couple of parishes, Duncan says, from a best
practices standpoint, more uniformity is warranted since disasters seem
never-ending in southeast Louisiana.

"Here we are about to start another hurricane season," says Duncan. "It's
not a bad time to do the calculations. Is it better to pay for the time or
give comp time off?"

At least for now in St. Bernard Parish, the answer is both.

Federal law says salaried exempt employees are not entitled to any overtime,
so parish governments aren't required to pay it unless it is part of their
local policy.

During Hurricane Isaac, St. Bernard Parish paid out hundreds of thousands of
dollars for overtime. 75 percent of the total has been reimbursed by FEMA.

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