By Brian Messenger
---- — METHUEN — The Public Works department has dumped the 24-hour snow and ice overtime shifts that cost taxpayers $169,000 last winter in favor of a new system where on-call plow operators will work based on the weather forecast.
The change comes after The Eagle-Tribune reported in May that the city staffed three-men DPW crews 24 hours a day, seven days a week from Dec. 17, 2011 to March 10 of this year, despite it being the second warmest winter on record in Massachusetts.
Under that schedule, a group of nine employees each earned 16 hours of overtime every weekend for 13 consecutive weeks. The overtime was earned as just five inches of snow fell in Methuen on Saturdays and Sundays in 2011-2012, according to city records.
Officials said 24-hour winter staffing — and the lucrative weekend overtime shifts in which employees are paid time and a half — had been in place in the city for decades. But that system came to an end earlier this month.
DPW Director Raymond DiFiore said plow crews will now only be called in after normal work hours on an as-needed basis.
"This is a reaction from last year," said DiFiore. "We're going to be monitoring this very closely. We will act appropriately."
Scheduling decisions will be based on forecasts from the city's weather service. DiFiore said only he and Highway Department Superintendent Jay Bonano have the authority to call in workers for after-hours road coverage.
"There will be no overtime shifts without the authorization of myself or my designee," said DiFiore. "That's our plan. ... No more second or third shift unless we deem it necessary."
The schedule change comes after some city councilors called for more on-call or weekend shifts. The new schedule was agreed to by DiFiore, Mayor Stephen Zanni and Michael Gagliardi, business manager of Laborers International Local 175.
"There's a good plan in place now," Zanni said. "We'll wait and see in terms of savings. I think it's an improvement."
Gagliardi said Methuen DPW employees will be paid time and a half for a minimum of four hours if they're called into work.
"Gauge the year as it goes," said Gagliardi. "I think it makes sense given the weather we've had the last couple of years."
Gagliardi said the union conceded the 24-hour schedule without receiving anything in return. But he noted new contract negotiations are set to begin early next year.
"It's certainly an issue we'll be addressing," Gagliardi said. "This is a cooperative relationship that the union has with the city."
On-call employees are used for overnight and weekend plow coverage in Andover and North Andover. In Haverhill, one public works employee covers evening and overnight shifts year-round, Monday through Friday. That 24-hour coverage is extended to the weekend between Nov. 1 and April 1, when one employee is assigned to each eight-hour shift on Saturdays and Sundays. In Lawrence, one employee works from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. each night during the winter and responds to calls for black ice and other issues on the roads.
In Methuen, employees were required to work seven days a week in the winter to earn weekend overtime, including 40 hours Monday through Friday followed by eight-hour shifts on Saturday and Sunday.
Employees were paid regular rates Monday through Friday, but the nine employees on the weekend shift earned between $27.70 to $44.30 per hour in overtime pay. The cost of staffing three eight-hour shifts on Saturdays and Sundays with a foreman, truck driver and laborer — and paying out 144 hours of overtime — translated to $5,022 each weekend.
In 2010-2011, 25 Methuen DPW employees earned $2,000 or more in snow and ice overtime. All together, the nine weekend crew members plus one alternate employee earned $96,502 in overtime pay.
In recent winters, Methuen's expenses for snow and ice removal have totaled between $700,000 and $1.6 million per year.
But the city spent just $449,000 last winter. Included in that expense was $168,822 in overtime. Of that amount, $65,293 went to cover overtime paid on Saturdays and Sundays.
DiFiore's weather records document 24 inches of snowfall in the city last winter. Nearly a third of that total (seven inches) fell in late October, before the 24-hour DPW coverage began. The average annual snowfall in the Boston area is about 42 inches.
The laborers' contract states it is the responsibility of the public works director to establish the 24-hour shifts each year, "from the first full week in December through the second full week of March in any year."
In May, DiFiore was reluctant to change the 24-hour schedule. "Given the choice, I'd do it again," he said. At the time, DiFiore said the shifts were in place to ensure safety on city roadways.
"Safety has to be the number one concern for the city," Difiore said last week. "But we also need to watch how were expending the funds."