Man in green shirt talks to a man sitting in the driver's seat of a city bus. Both of them are smiling.
Fernando Rodriguez, a longtime bus operator for Wichita Transit, provides on-the-job training for new driver Alfonso Gonzales. (Alex Unruh/The Wichita Beacon)

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Fernando Rodriguez feels drained after returning home from a 14-hour shift driving a bus for Wichita Transit. It’s late in the evening and he doesn’t have the energy to do anything, but he still has a family to take care of — a wife and two children ages 6 and 16.

Rodriguez is one of hundreds of city employees paid a collective $8 million in overtime last year. That’s $2 million more than was spent five years before, an increase partly attributed by the city to an inability to hire enough people to fill vacancies. “When you get your check, it’s kind of satisfying because it’s so big, but you have no life in order to compensate for that extra money,” Rodriguez said.

The police, public works, fire and transit departments distributed the most overtime compensation in 2021, accounting for nearly all the city’s total overtime spending. Some amount of overtime is expected because of how scheduling works within these departments. But overtime has also been used to maintain adequate service levels during a nationwide labor shortage that has been felt citywide.

A response to understaffing

Wichita has dealt with understaffing for years, and nearly all of the city’s departments staff fewer employees per capita compared to U.S. cities of similar sizes. 

Though this shortage predates COVID, Wichita instituted a temporary hiring freeze and furlough when the pandemic hit in March 2020. This coincides with the sharpest rise in overtime pay, as compensation rose from $6.6 million to $7.8 million between 2019 and 2020. Overtime pay continued to increase last year as the city struggled to refill positions. 

In 2020, the city of Wichita had 3,694 staff on payroll. This number rose to 3,856 in 2021 but remained below pre-COVID numbers. While the proportion of employees earning overtime has remained consistent between 2016 and 2021, the total amount of overtime spent by the city has increased by around 34 percent, as people were asked to work more hours.

The city government budgeted around $3.8 million in overtime compensation in 2021. In situations where the amount spent on overtime exceeds the amount budgeted, this is often because the city underspends on base wages, said Mark Manning, Wichita city treasurer. The city saves money by paying fewer full-time employees, even with overtime. 

Most Wichita Transit employees earned some overtime compensation in 2021 because the department builds overtime hours into driver schedules. Drivers bid for the schedules they want at various points throughout the year based on seniority. On average, these schedules tend to be 48 hours a week, said Nathaniel Hinkel, Wichita Transit’s senior communications specialist. 

Federal law states that overtime compensation is due if an employee works in excess of 40 hours a week and the employee must be paid no less than one and a half times their regular rate. 

Wichita Transit paid a collective $745,000 in overtime compensation to 118 of its 151 employees last year. Transit workers earned an average of $6,321 in overtime — the largest average of any city department.

The transit department has put regulations in place to limit the number of overtime hours worked by an employee, Hinkel said. 

“Right now, we don’t have any of our operators driving more than 14 hours in a day,” he added. “And that will be under the stipulation that it’s a split shift,” meaning drivers get a break in the middle of the day.  

In addition, Wichita Transit doesn’t provide service on Sundays, which guarantees employees have at least one day off a week. 

Wichita Transit is authorized to fill up to 20 positions, Hinkle said. But the department competes with other local employers also looking to hire drivers, he added. 

One major competitor is First Student, the contracted company that provides bus service to Wichita Public Schools. Currently, Wichita Transit’s starting wage for a full-time bus operator is listed online as $15.87 an hour. First Student advertises a part-time hourly wage of $20 as well as a $2,500 starting bonus for fully licensed drivers. 

“Being a city department, it takes a little bit more time to adjust to those trends,” Hinkel said. 

Fernando Rodriguez decided to drive for Wichita Transit because driving a school bus offers fewer hours even if it does pay a higher hourly rate. He added that he enjoys the benefits he receives as a city employee, and he also appreciates the money he’s able to make by working overtime.

As a transit driver for three and a half years, Rodriguez now has some seniority that grants him better control over his schedule and his route. When he was a new hire, his schedule was dictated for him. It wasn’t unheard of to work a double shift and then be out on the roads again by 4:30 the next morning, he said. 

“It’s kind of killing your own people, you know?” Rodriguez added. 

Rodriguez said he’s been consistently working overtime ever since he started with Wichita Transit. He earned $11,087 from overtime pay in 2021 – roughly 25 percent of his pay, according to city records. But the pay doesn’t justify the amount of work he has to do, Rodriguez said.

“If you don’t pay us enough, the turnover is going to be bad,” he added. He knows of two drivers who quit within the past week.  

Rodriguez himself is looking into getting a hazmat and a tanker license so he can find a job delivering oil and propane. “That’s what I’m investing my time into right now —  to get something better and to spend more time with my family,” he said. 

Nearly $3.5 million was spent on WPD overtime in 2021

Out of all city departments, the Wichita Police Department paid the most overtime last year, distributing around $3.5 million to 795 employees, or about $4,400 on average per employee. 

Nearly 84 percent of the WPD earned some amount of overtime pay — the second highest percentage behind the Wichita Fire Department. All of the departments with the highest proportions of overtime employees also reported the largest amounts of overtime spending. 

The overtime compensation spent by the WPD is not typically a symptom of a lack of staffing, WPD Public Information Officer Trevor Macy wrote in an email to The Beacon. Instead, officers often work overtime as a temporary response to increased community needs. 

While most overtime is voluntary, large events such as Riverfest require officers to put in extra hours. Officers must also be available 24/7 to respond to emergencies as they arise, Macy added. Sometimes these emergencies occur outside of normal working hours. 

Not inherently wasteful

Overtime isn’t inherently wasteful and can sometimes be the more cost-effective option, said Manning, the city treasurer.

“When we have peaks in service demands, it’s much more efficient to pay overtime to cover those peaks,” he added. “We wouldn’t want to staff at the absolute peak service demand level because then we’d have periods when we’d have staff that wasn’t necessary.” 

For example, the duties performed by street maintenance workers in the public works department vary based on the season, said Megan Lovely, Wichita communications manager.

During winter ice storms, the demand for street services goes up because roads need to be plowed. This requires staff to work different schedules than is typical  — usually 12 hours on and 12 hours off, Lovely added.

In the case of Wichita Transit, overtime allows the city to keep buses running on schedule. The alternative would mean cutting routes, which the department is trying to avoid, Hinkel said. “The last thing we want to do is reduce our capabilities for those who need our services.”

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Gretchen Lenth is The Wichita Beacon’s data intern through the Dow Jones News Fund. Follow her on Twitter @GretchenLenth.