County officials for years have promised to rein in overtime, but a Tribune analysis of payroll records shows they have largely failed, shelling out about $65.4 million in fiscal year 2011, a 1 percent drop from 2008.
Stroger Hospital nurse Luzvilla Tortola led all county employees in overtime, making an extra $94,142 to nearly double her salary to about $190,000.
She was among 58 employees — nurses, pharmacists, a dietitian and an electrician — whose overtime made their 2011 paychecks fatter than that of Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, who made $153,031.
Tortola said she has worked back-to-back 16-hour shifts in Stroger Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit, adding that a shortage of nurses drives up overtime costs.
"I know you want to cut overtime because there is no budget, but that is wrong," Tortola said. "You are not dealing with dummies, you are dealing with lives."
For decades, county officials have struggled to cut back on excessive extra work hours, which stress the county's resources and experts say can put workers, hospital patients and jail inmates at risk.
County lawmakers in 2005, concerned about financial and safety issues, placed a cap on the number of overtime hours employees could work in a year. But the Tribune found that hundreds of employees from 2008 through 2011 routinely exceeded that limit.
Preckwinkle, who took office in late 2010, said officials are tackling overtime among a number of workplace issues.
"We understand that we have a constellation of issues here around who shows up, whether they get overtime, how often they use family and medical leave, all that," Preckwinkle said. "It became apparent to us in the first two years that these are issues that we have to address."
Preckwinkle has cut overall county spending by about $100 million since taking office, and she eliminated the despised penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase passed under her predecessor, Todd Stroger.
But other county fees and taxes continue to rise.
County commissioners this month approved a $2.95 billion budget for next year that places a $25 tax on new gun sales, a 1.25 percent use tax on out-of-county purchases of more than $3,500, a $1,000-a-year tax on slot machines and $200-a-year tax on video gambling terminals.
Those taxes, coupled with some fee increases, are projected to raise $41.7 million — about $24 million less than what the county spent on overtime last year.
But Preckwinkle's administration says that spending is coming under control, estimating that overtime in 2012 will drop by about $4 million.
Overtime is highest in the Cook County Health and Hospitals System. The system, which serves as a safety net for the poor and uninsured, runs Stroger and Provident hospitals, Oak Forest Health Center and 16 health care clinics.
The Health and Hospitals System accounted for about 61 percent of the total overtime paid. And in each of the last four years, the health system has exceeded its budget for overtime, running up about $40 million a year.