the Boston skyline overlaid with money.

Which State Employees Make More than the Boss?

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In 2017, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections had 20 employees who were paid more than the commissioner’s salary of $159,645. Among these 20, the median income was $172,491. This highly-paid group accounted for $1.2 million in overtime spending — enough to hire seven more employees at that six-figure median salary.


Pioneer Institute wanted to find out how many Commonwealth departments had employees who earned more than their department head, so we used Pioneer’s transparency platform, MassOpenBooks. In 28 state departments, ranging from the Department of Public Safety to the Appeals Court, we found a clear pattern of employees earning more than the person managing the agency:

Apparently, many agency heads opted to pay vast sums of overtime rather than hire new staff.  Only five of the 28 departments that had employees making more than the department head had no overtime earned by these staff. The other 23 departments averaged $32,709 in overtime per “over the top” employee in 2017. Although they receive sizeable paychecks with a median regular annual salary of $102,000, their overtime payments could hire 48 new employees with the same base incomes– and that doesn’t include the overtime paid to those earning less than their boss.


While the late 2016 hiring freeze affected 2017’s budget, it specifically excluded the public health and safety workers who populated these 28 departments.  Still, overtime among these over-the-top paid employees accounted for $7.65 million, a quarter of their overall income in 2017.  Pioneer Institute found that 23 of the employees who made more than their bosses earned more from overtime than regular pay.


Health-related departments (the Department of Public Health at 16.8 percent and the Department of Mental Health with 15.5 percent) accounted for 32 percent of employees who were paid more than the commissioner and the general counsel, with an average of 44 percent of their employees’ pay being overtime compensation.


The department with the next highest overtime for employees making more than their boss was the Department of Corrections with 8.4 percent of the 238 state employees who earned more than their bosses. Most of these employees were corrections officers. In 2017, 20 employees earned more than the commissioner and averaged $64,000 in overtime.


According to, situations in which an employee may earn more than the boss generally occur when the nature of the employee’s job is highly technical. This may be the case for some of the five departments where overtime wasn’t a factor. For instance, at the Department of Conservation and Recreation, five civil engineers earned more than the Department Commissioner, likely due to the technical skill required for the job and the competitive forces that factored into their pay. But in other cases, that rationale is hard to justify. For instance, in the Suffolk County Sherriff’s Department, eight corrections officers made more than the sheriff.


In the 23 departments where overtime was to blame for the differential, the public has a right to know why so much overtime is being charged, whether it is a temporary fix, and whether an employee can be effective working such long hours. Without that level of transparency, it’s only natural for the public to believe that something is quite broken.


Kaila Webb is the Wellesley College Freedom Project Intern at the Pioneer Institute. She majors in Environmental Studies, as well as Chinese Language and Culture.