Maricopa County officials are looking into allegations the sheriff’s office has mismanaged overtime and that some jail employees have worked unpaid hours.
According to a report obtained by The Arizona Republic in a public records request, a county analysis indicates sheriff’s employees may have racked up tens of thousands of unpaid overtime hours since 2007.
County Manager David Smith said that could cost millions of dollars in back pay.
Sheriff’s officials had no comment on the allegations.
Maricopa County has the third-largest jail system in the nation, with nearly 10,000 inmates and about 2,000 detention officers. Salaries for detention officers represent nearly half of the office’s budget, or more than $150 million last fiscal year.
The dispute centers on whether detention employees have been regularly paid for attending briefings before their shifts begin. The report said employees generally attend briefings about jail operations 15 minutes before shifts.
Detention officers brought the issue to top sheriff’s officials in January. The next month, Deputy County Attorney Clarisse McCormick told the Board of Supervisors a prompt investigation was needed to avoid litigation by detention officers.
The analysis used overtime data and staffing figures to assess overtime spending patterns for detention officers and detention sergeants from February 2007 to June 2009.
Two years ago, county auditors told the office it was spending too much on overtime, citing the built-in overtime tied to the briefings.
County officials expected spending to level off with a stable inmate population and the hiring of more detention officers. Documents show that instead, overtime fell from more than 10,000 hours in November 2007 to fewer than 2,000 by early 2008.
Budget officials became concerned about possible unpaid overtime.
“All the sudden they’re spending money at a very high rate, and then it drops off the cliff,” Smith said. “Now they supposedly saved all that money by cutting off overtime at that point down to that extremely low level. Well, did they or did they just subsume it into a business practice that’s coming back to bite us two years later?”
The vice president of the Maricopa County Association of Detention Officers, Luis Altamirano, said he told Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Chief Deputy David Hendershott in January detention officers were not being paid for pre-shift briefings and would seek back pay.
The issue has been discussed by the Board of Supervisors in at least two executive sessions and was identified as a potential financial liability in a May supervisors’ meeting.
County officials say the sheriff’s office wants to pay the overtime to handle the issue.
But Smith said that doesn’t necessarily mean all parties have agreed.
“Somebody else could come back and say, ‘I worked here two years ago, and I worked 200 (overtime) hours, and I want my check.’ It could just go on and on,” he said.
Smith told County Attorney Andrew Thomas on Aug. 6 the board had hired Littler Mendelson, a firm that specializes in labor law, to prepare for litigation.
Some county officials have said they would like the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate – even if it means fines.
“On the board, we’re very concerned,” said board Chairman Max Wilson. “If there’s somebody that worked overtime and didn’t get paid, why, we need to rectify that right away, even if we have to bring in the federal government to do this. We’ll do what we have to do.”