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New York City Courts Paused — But Overtime Kept Flowing

An entrance to Manhattan Supreme Court was closed during the coronavirus outbreak.
An entrance to Manhattan Supreme Court was closed during the coronavirus outbreak.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Taxpayers shelled out tens of thousands of dollars in overtime for workers to clean and perform routine maintenance at local courthouses, even after more than half of the buildings closed, records show.

On March 17, courthouses began shutting across the city to help contain the spread of coronavirus. Within days, 18 of the city’s 32 state courthouses had been locked up.

The number of staff operating in the remaining 14 plummeted from 1,401 to 511, with most court personnel told to work from home. Only a few courtrooms continued to function, with much of the activity now conducted via video.

Yet the overtime pay to custodians, carpenters, plasterers and other tradespeople working at these courthouses kept flowing.

In the month following the St. Patrick’s Day shutdown, the state Office of Court Administration paid more than $170,000 in overtime for work performed in the courthouses that stayed open, records obtained by THE CITY show.

Because the court buildings are owned by the city, the work was performed by staff of the Department of Administrative Citywide Services (DCAS).

State Deficit Balloons

Meanwhile, the state’s budget gap has grown to record proportions.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo initiated a historic level of emergency safety-net spending on everything from hospital supplies to skyrocketing unemployment claims.

On the day the courthouse shutdown began, state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli estimated the state’s $6 billion deficit could more than double to an unprecedented $13 billion.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli
State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli
NYS Comptroller’s Office/Flickr

In an emailed response to THE CITY’s questions, Nick Benson, a DCAS spokesperson, noted that OT was down 44% for custodial workers and 66% for trades staff from the month prior to the shutdown.

Benson also confirmed that the courthouse overtime spigot suddenly shut last month.

On April 12, DCAS put the word out that OT for custodial staff would be prohibited going forward except in cases of emergency. A similar edict went out to trade workers three days later.

“In light of current budget conditions at every level of government, employees were informed that building services that could not be performed during ordinary business hours would no longer be performed unless it’s an emergency,” Benson said.

Benson gave several reasons for the OT spending in the month before the emergency-only order took hold.

There was a “sharp uptick in employees who are on leave,” including staff “who may be at high risk with respect to COVID-19 or who have challenges related to child care,” he said.

But most of the OT was paid in response to requests for off-hour work by judges and court personnel, or jobs “that would be unsafe to perform while the building is occupied,” he said.

“Building maintenance does not cease even when fewer people are using a facility,” Benson wrote. “When requests were made for maintenance that could not be completed during business hours, overtime costs were billed.”

Tested Power Switches

That extra pay for working beyond a regular shift or on weekends included a wide variety of tasks, including some that do not appear to be emergency jobs.

DCAS laborers boarded up windows in closed courts and installed new toilets. They replaced a cooling tower at one courthouse. They tested generators and power switches, fixed door locks, patched walls and replaced broken floor tile.

An officer outside Manhattan Criminal Court.
An officer outside Manhattan Criminal Court
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Benson said OT was paid for repairs to courthouse steps and a marble floor. In one court building, workers “built a steel frame for a pump pit,” at another they “removed damaged fresh air dampers.”

At others they “patched walls, painted walls, repaired a ceiling, repaired damaged windows, repaired plaster,” among other tasks.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, court personnel requested additional cleaning, increasing daily scrub-downs from one to three.

Benson noted that DCAS workers managed to complete those extra cleanings during regular business hours for regular pay.

But, he said, deep cleaning of staff desks and rug shampooing requested by court staff required overtime pay because the jobs “cannot be done during business hours.”

“There was a courthouse where a judge requested thorough deep cleaning that involved multiple custodians and heavy bleaching in a number of different rooms,” Benson stated. “The judge requested that the work be done over a weekend when staff and the public were not in the building.”

“Ultimately, it’s up to OCA to decide if it wants work performed that may require overtime costs,” Benson added.

OCA spokesperson Lucian Chalfen declined to discuss specific requests by judges or court personnel for off-hours work, stating that DCAS staff “are required by statute to provide and maintain the facility, how they manage their resources is their concern.”

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