Overtime down at PUD; managers look to minimize

The Grays Harbor PUD has seen a decline in overtime hours in recent years, likely stemming from fewer severe winter storms. In 2007, PUD employees billed 50,372 hours of overtime pay, but only 27,445 hours in 2012 — a 46 percent drop.

Chief Financial Officer Doug Streeter said it’s hard to determine exactly how much money the PUD shells out for overtime each year, as various employees are paid different amounts. But he estimated the average employee makes $60 per hour on an overtime shift, putting overtime payouts at roughly $1.6 million last year.

Engineering Manager Wes Gray said about 85 percent of overtime work occurs as a result of outages but about 10 percent is the result of planned capital projects.

“We have a tendency to minimize our customer impact, but to do that we’re often working between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.” Gray said.

He said scheduling maintenance for regular business hours could help the PUD cut down on overtime, but could ultimately anger customers by causing power outages at inconvenient times.

There are, however, some feasible approaches to cutting down overtime payouts, Gray said. For example, the currently understaffed system control department relies on overtime hours to maintain adequate staffing levels.

“We’re running one dispatcher short, so the others are filling in that position,” Gray said.

Under the current arrangement, the employees work four 12.5 hour shifts each week, and will likely do so for several months. Streeter said an apprentice is currently training for the open position.

In other cases, it’s difficult to determine whether it would be more cost-effective to hire additional employees or to keep paying overtime rates. General Manager Dave Ward said the need for more workers is sometimes temporary — and bringing in new employees isn’t worth it in the long run.

“You have to look at what’s going on,” Ward said. “It depends on whether it’s better to handle it with overtime or staff up. But first you have to understand what’s going on.”

When employees begin to rack up hours as a result of severe weather, it’s best to keep employment levels stable and pay the additional costs in overtime, Gray said. He pointed to the 2007 storm season, when Grays Harbor PUD had to call in reinforcements from other utility departments to help combat outages.

Commissioner Arie Callaghan said it’s understandable to pay overtime in these cases.

“We have to remember that we’re on the coast, and that impacts our weather,” he said.

Gray said the PUD will continue to combat overtime pay by performing more routine maintenance to prevent future outages.