Road crews pile up overtime by the ton

Two dozen people, two dozen big trucks and pavers, and hundreds of tons of hot asphalt depend on Duane Myers.

When he gets it right, his crew leaves behind a county road that’s a smooth ride, or repairs that make roads last longer.

Michael O’Leary / The Herald

Duane Myers and his Snohomish County paving crew work on a resurfacing project near Darrington recently. Myers worked 709 hours of overtime in 2004 in what his boss says is “probably the toughest job in the division.”

Doing the job right takes long hours, and Myers shrugs off 11-hour days that include mandatory daily overtime much of the year.

“You need somebody energetic in this position,” he said.

Still, Myers was surprised to learn that last year he worked 709 hours of overtime as a paving crew leader for the Snohomish County Public Works Department. He learned the number after an analysis of county overtime spending by The Herald.

Myers worked the most overtime hours of anyone in his department, and he received the fourth-highest total in overtime pay of all county employees.

“I guess I never realized,” said Myers, 35. “I knew the position had a lot …”

‘Toughest job’

Altogether, the county last year spent $7.3 million in overtime, about $300,000 more than was budgeted, county finance director Roger Neumaier said.

Three departments spent 80 percent of that money.

The Public Works Department’s overtime spending totaled $2.06 million, trailing only the $2.28 million spent by the sheriff’s office, and ahead of the $1.3 million spent in the corrections department.

The bulk of the public works overtime – about $1.2 million – goes for road maintenance and people such as Myers and his crews.

Myers’ job is “making things flow so it isn’t chaos out there.”

For his work, the county paid Myers $27,870 in overtime last year. A lead supervisor with Myers’ level of seniority earns a $55,000 base salary.

Nine other lead supervisors each worked between 332 and 689 hours of overtime last year.

The 10 public works positions accounted for $199,505 in overtime spending last year – nearly 10 percent of the department’s entire overtime spending.

Other top overtime pay went to garbage truck drivers and transfer station operators, said Peter Hahn, the county’s public works director.

For four years, Myers has led the county’s key paving crew in a job his boss calls “the meat grinder” and “probably the toughest job in the division.”

Myers, who has 16 years of experience, is in charge of quality control for county roads. If his crew makes a mistake, he has to get it fixed. On top of that, Myers volunteers to cover holidays and vacations for other crew leaders.

Myers and those in positions similar to his are union members and are paid on an hourly basis. Whenever union members are called in, they get a minimum three hours of pay.

Any work scheduled on Fridays for most of the year is overtime for Myers and his crew, according to union rules.

Overtime is cheaper

Hahn said he used to wonder if there was a cheaper option, but a 2001 county audit showed overtime was less costly than hiring a larger staff.

“We’ve asked the same questions. This is not a new or unusual question for us,” he said.

Overtime spending is monitored closely and approved only for necessary work.

Overtime allows the county to keep down the number of people on the payroll in winter when there is less work and to ramp up in the summer when necessary tasks must be completed, said Steve Pratt, road maintenance director and Myers’ boss.

Using existing staff on overtime is cheaper than hiring more people, once you figure in the benefits package for each new person, he said.

“You want the highest skill level, and you get that by keeping your good people,” Pratt said.

Weather is the biggest factor in road maintenance overtime spending, including hurrying to finish weather-dependent paving projects in the summer and cleaning up after storms.

Paving is especially vulnerable, and rain completely shuts down chip-sealing projects where oil and gravel are compacted on a road surface.

“You’ve got to go. You’ve got to go when it is dry and it is hot,” Hahn said.

Summer is the only time new culverts can be dug under roads, and crews must race to get it done before spawning salmon return. Myers’ road crews follow that race with a repaving race.

The paving boom

Myers, of Arlington, started working for the county just after high school, about the same time a new state gas tax changed the way the county’s paving program worked.

Before 1989, the county would just throw asphalt into potholes and proclaim them fixed.

The new way involved giving roads longer life spans by repaving and chip-sealing, which prevents potholes.

The population boom, and its traffic, made more work for the road crews.

“Like everyone, I threw my name in the hat” for overtime, Myers said.

Like all of the county’s union road workers, he started out at the bottom and built up his skills.

Inside his county-issued Ford F-150 pickup truck, his cell phone is constantly ringing with calls from asphalt vendors or crew members, each with lots of questions: How much mix do you need? Where do you want the roller? Where do I go next?

Unlike his earlier years, Myers’ job as a crew leader is more cerebral, and less physical, as he directs equipment and crews around county job sites like chess pieces, carefully following union and personnel rules, he said.

Spending validated

The county’s 2001 audit determined that public works was using overtime properly, but needed a clearer policy. The audit said savings of up to $234,000 were possible.

The audit recommended that managers regularly discuss overtime, something Hahn said now happens monthly.

The audit also recommended tracking overtime reports more closely. Hahn said software limitations hinder that even today.

County officials are drafting next year’s budget. Some scrutiny has fallen on Sheriff Rick Bart, who anticipates overspending this year’s overtime allotment.

Gary Nelson, County Council chairman, said he monitors spending closely. If people are concerned about overtime, one step they can take is not clogging storm drains and culverts with improperly dumped grass clippings and yard waste, Nelson said.

County Executive Aaron Reardon and his finance department monitor public works overtime closely, said Reardon’s spokesman, Mark Funk.

“We believe the system they have been using for several years has saved taxpayers money,” Funk said. “It has meant we haven’t had to hire as many people.”

Public works has overspent its overtime allotment four out of the last eight years, coming in at or below budget the last two years.

“They have always been scrupulous about budgeting for overtime,” Funk said. “In the past five years, there have been no surprises.”

Night and day

For most of the year, Myers’ workday starts at 5:30 a.m. His base shift is 10 hours, four days a week, but his work isn’t done until his crew is finished and he has planned ahead for the next day.

When he isn’t paving, Myers is on snow and ice watch. He’s the person emergency operators call when a tree is blocking a road.

Sometimes he takes the chain saw himself rather than ask a subordinate to climb out of bed at 2 a.m.

“I like to stay busy, keep myself challenged,” Myers said. “Other than hunting season, I can always be reached.”

Even when he was working last year’s overtime, he occasionally drove dump trucks for a private company on Saturdays.

Myers is a husband of four years, with two toddlers at home. “I never really got tired. Now the fire is starting to die down a little bit,” he said.

Pratt said Myers has a “time-consuming, time-intensive job. It kind of wears people out.”

Myers chafes at the public’s stereotype of road workers leaning on shovels.

“If there are three people talking, it’s probably a lead person telling the other two, ‘This is how I want it done and nothing less than that.’”

Reporter Jeff Switzer: 425-339-3452 or

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