California auditors say the state has paid billions of dollars in the last few years to state employees taking overtime.
Auditors say some state workers earned more than $150,000 a year. That adds up to more than $2.1 billion in overtime during the past five years.
The highest overtime payments went to 26 firefighters, four highway patrolmen and 110 employees at the departments of Veterans Affairs, Mental Health, and Developmental Services.
Union contracts are being blamed for the overtime.
The state auditor criticized union contracts at the Mental Health and Developmental Services departments that allow employees to claim overtime even if they have been off work for other parts of the pay period.
A state law blocked the practice in February, but the new law can be overridden by future collective bargaining agreements, auditors said.
The agencies' directors responded to the audit by saying they often have little choice about overtime.
"Overtime is a fundamental component of 24-hour care facilities and it is necessary to ensure the delivery of services," wrote Developmental Services Director Terri Delgadillo.
The audit of overtime payments came after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger imposed unpaid furloughs on state employees three days each month to help close a massive budget deficit.
State Auditor Elaine Howle acknowledged that some state facilities are understaffed, forcing managers to rely on overtime. But her report notes excessive overtime was earned by a relatively small number of employees at state mental hospitals and developmental centers, which "may compromise their own and patients' or consumers' health and safety."
For instance, 19 of the 489 nurses at the mental health department's Napa State Hospital averaged $78,000 in regular pay and $99,000 in overtime. Just 27 of the 430 psychiatric assistants at the Sonoma Developmental Center averaged $41,000 in overtime on top of their average $33,000 annual salary.
The California Highway Patrol had the fewest employees earning more than $150,000 in overtime among the audited agencies. But it paid the most overtime over the five-year period, $448 million to 12,463 of its 14,082 employees. Most of the overtime went to patrol officers.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection paid the second most overtime, $425 million to 10,191 of its 11,336 employees.