Bill grants officers overtime pay for hours worked while on vacation

By STEPHANIE HEINATZ, The Virginian-Pilot
© February 23, 2005

Paying overtime to police officers can be a double-edged sword in local cities, especially Suffolk.

On one hand, officers would see more money in their paychecks – something Suffolk police have wanted for years.

But on the other hand, the money would have to come from city funds.

The House of Delegates is expected to vote this week on SB873, an amendment that includes law enforcement employees in the overtime compensation definition for public safety personnel. It spells out that police officers, like their fire and rescue counterparts, are entitled to overtime pay for hours worked while on vacation or any other form of leave.

“For instance, if an officer is on vacation for a week and has to go to court Friday afternoon for three hours, it would require overtime pay for those three hours,” said Martha McClees , Suffolk’s legislative liaison.

From a scheduling standpoint, there’s often little the city can do to get officers in court for every proceeding only during their working hours.

Many officers say that initial court dates usually are set so that they don’t have to come in on their time off. But when cases get continued, or when an officer who works the midnight shift has to go to court, scheduling problems arise.

Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, II, R-Centreville, introduced the bill last month as the next step in bringing better compensation to public safety workers. In 2001 the General Assembly extended the overtime benefit to fire and rescue workers.

If the bill is approved, it could cost Suffolk more than $500,000 a year, McClees estimated.

“From the standpoint of cost, we oppose it,” McClees said. “It’s essentially an unfunded mandate that falls on the backs of the localities.”

It also, McClees said, would be an order that would go beyond what’s required in the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Other Hampton Roads cities, however, aren’t likely to feel the effects of the bill.

Norfolk officers already receive overtime for hours worked while on vacation. If the bill passes, the city would have to include other forms of leave. But it would be an additional cost of less than $25,000, said Ron Williams, Norfolk’s legislative liaison.

Virginia Beach won’t be affected at all. The city already pays overtime the way the bill would require.

Suffolk’s Police Department historically has paid lower salaries than neighboring cities . In May , the City Council agreed to raise the starting salary for police officers to nearly $31,000, from $29,447. In Virginia Beach, new recruits earn $34,857. That increases to $36,622 when they graduate from the academy.

Suffolk is now deep into a $50,000 study of the salaries of police, fire and rescue workers.

“At the moment we are seriously lacking in Suffolk for experienced officers,” said Joyce Williams, a detective and current president of the Suffolk Police Officers Association . “The city has got to give the experienced officers and the recruits a reason to stay here.”

In the past year, Williams said, more than 22 officers have left the department citing better pay as the deciding factor.

“Huge loss for us,” Williams said. “All we want is a fair salary for the job that we perform.”

Stephanie Heinatz at 222-5563 or stephanie.heinatz@pilot