An Onondaga County audit this year found Hillbrook Juvenile Detention Center routinely mismanaged employee overtime, including allowing one employee to break state labor laws 82 times.

Overtime pay at Hillbrook has more than tripled since 2017. The audit, released in April and first reported by Central Current, detailed Hillbrook’s failure to limit employees’ overtime in 2020 and 2021.

Hillbrook management knew the results of the audit about three months before it was publicly released. Yet one employee who made one-fifth of all the 82-employee facility’s overtime pay in 2021 is on pace to make even more money this year, the county auditor said. 

The employee, Sandy Masello, a detention counselor, is set to make nearly $190,000 in 2022, according to Onondaga County Comptroller Marty Masterpole.

At least two county legislators and Masterpole said they are concerned about the potential misuse of tax dollars. They also said they are also concerned about the effect the long hours have on the care Hillbrook counselors give kids who need it most.

“Is it safe? I don’t know,” said the Legislature’s Republican Majority Leader Brian May. “Is it even possible to work that many hours and bring the virtues they need to that job?” 

The overtime’s ripple effect could further cost the county if state regulators issue sanctions.

Masterpole, a Democrat, found Masello’s timesheet was out of compliance with state labor laws 82 times in a 130-week span. His office has run the numbers, and he believes that could put the county on the hook for a $243,000 fine from the state Department of Labor.

Hillbrook has long had problems with overtime pay.

Masterpole’s audit echoes issues found in a 2016 audit of Hillbrook by then-Comptroller Robert Antonacci, a Republican.

The number of employees who make more than $10,000 in overtime doubled from eight in 2019 to 16 in 2020. Last year, 15 employees hit that mark.

The overtime will juice employees’ pensions too.

For example, Masello is now eligible to retire. If she retires at the end of this year, the county would owe her a nearly $100,000 pension, making hers the fourth-highest pension ever paid out by Onondaga County, according to an analysis by Central Current.  

Masello did not return emails and calls requesting comment.

Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon’s spokesman Justin Sayles said Masello’s salary was so high because of the way the union’s contract was negotiated. Sayles did not respond to additional questions.

County officials in a formal response to the audit disputed some of Masterpole’s findings. In the response, officials said Hillbrook needed the overtime to staff the facility and that counselors didn’t break any laws. They characterized some issues as misunderstandings, agreed to make some changes and said they’d re-evaluate their staffing structure.

The audit pointed out that the union contract gives employees more opportunity to increase their overtime than Hillbrook’s own policies and procedures. County officials in their response said they would update the facility’s procedures to match the contract.  

“In fairness to the people running Hillbrook, the way that [contract] is structured, it enables someone to do what is happening at Hillbrook,” May said.

How 1 employee allegedly broke rules 82 times

Hillbrook’s overtime system allowed Masello to work almost nonstop and make 5.5 years of salary in just two calendar years.

In 2020 and 2021, Masello earned $190,557.52 and $184,212.43, respectively. Her base salary in 2021 was $67,938.68.

State labor laws require employees who work at facilities like Hillbrook to get at least one 24-hour break every seven days. But in 82 of 130 weeks covered by the audit, Masello failed to take a single consecutive 24-hour break, the audit found.

A sample of Masello’s time sheet from September 2020 showed that over a three-day period she worked three consecutive double shifts – 16, 18.5 and 18.5 hours – with only four- and five-hour breaks.

The audit sampled three months of time sheets to find other ways employees made overtime pay.

Masterpole’s office found employees called in sick or used paid time off but then worked anyway 42 times in the three-month sample. The county paid employees 2.5 times their typical hourly rate for those hours.

“She was the king of it,” Masterpole said of Masello.

Masterpole said he’s confident the practice also happened often outside the three-month sample.   

Employees broke multiple other rules laid out in Hillbrook’s policies and procedures, according to the audit, including counselors and aides who worked:

·  Three or more overtime shifts in a week.

·  More than two 16-hour shifts in a week.

·  More than 24 hours of overtime in a 72-hour span.

County officials noted the employees’ contract allows them to work that much overtime. In a response to the audit, Hillbrook representatives said they would need change policies and procedures to match the union contract.

Masterpole said his office confirmed Hillbrook employees worked the hours they submitted by checking swipe card records.

But Masterpole said he believes workers slept during work hours.

“The administrators at Hillbrook will tell you they don’t sleep on the job,” Masterpole said. “I don’t think it’s physically possible to not (sleep).”

 The county did not comment for this story, but it did defend Masello in the audit.

“Any perceived or real shortcomings of the department in its management of overtime should not reflect negatively on a dedicated employee who has ‘stepped up’ when needed,” Hillbrook management wrote.

8 years of issues with overtime

Many of the issues Masterpole found in his 2022 audit were also found in the 2016 audit.  

Among the issues that repeatedly arose were:

·  Employees calling in sick and working anyway to collect compensatory time or overtime.

·  A lack of verification that overtime is being handed out on a rotation.

·  Shift supervisors approving their own overtime or failing to get their overtime pre-approved.

·  Employees working more than two 16-hour shifts in one work week.

Part of the inability to fix the problem, Masterpole said, is that Masello and some of the other high-earners are shift supervisors. If they work when administrators aren’t in the building – overnights and weekends, in particular – they become the administrators.

The overtime system at Hillbrook relies on supervisors. According to Hillbrook’s policies, supervisors should check with part-time staff to fill overtime slots and assign overtime on a rotational basis rather than self-assigning it.

That’s become increasingly difficult since 2016, when New York passed its Raise the Age legislation, increasing Hillbrook’s workload. The county has hired another 26 full-time employees at Hillbrook since then, but overtime has continued to increase.

No quick fix

The results of the audit represent the crumbling of fail-safes to make sure county employees are not abusing overtime, said Democratic Legislator Mary Kuhn, who represents the 7th District including a large area of DeWitt and East Syracuse. 

Kuhn said while Hillbrook management and the county administration should have kept closer watch, the Legislature also failed to ask more questions earlier about the overtime.

“The Legislature has reneged on its responsibility to pay attention to these kinds of things,” Kuhn said.

Kuhn said the Legislature only recently took a closer look at quarterly reports that tell legislators when employees are making a certain amount of overtime.

May, the Republican majority leader who represents the 1st District covering Lysander and Baldwinsville, believes that Hillbrook can manage and the county can bargain itself out of the overtime predicament.

But that will be a difficult fix.

The county usually negotiates contracts in three-year increments. The contract for CSEA, the union that represents Hillbrook employees, expires on Dec. 31 of this year.

Chris Libonati

Chris Libonati covers government, accountability and equity. Have a tip? Contact Chris at 585-290-0718 or libonati@centralcurrent.org.