Millions spent as state workers parked in make-work jobs

Susannah Frame reports.

State agencies are parking some employees in "make-work" assignments for months or years, leaving taxpayers on the hook to cover the workers' salaries while the state gets little or in some cases nothing in return.

Reforms implemented five years ago were aimed at eliminating the state's practice of "home assignment" -- a policy of sending workers home with full pay and benefits for long periods of time while alleged wrongdoing on the job was investigated.

Home assignment was replaced with the use of "alternate assignment," during which the employee under investigation stays on the job but is put in a different section and assigned tasks the worker wasn’t hired to do, even menial jobs like sealing envelopes or making copies.

The alternate assignment policy was a response to the KING 5 Investigators' 2012 series, Paid for Nothing, which showed many workers were placed on home assignments for long periods of time -- up to 3.5 years. While investigations into their actions proceeded at a snail's pace, they collected salaries and benefits while doing no work. The series prompted Gov. Chris Gregoire to change state policy mandating that investigations were to last no longer than two weeks and if the employee was on home assignment longer than that, it had to be reported to the state’s top HR executive.

But a review of data obtained by KING 5 shows that many alternate assignments have dragged on for weeks, months and even years as taxpayers are left paying workers for little meaningful work or in some cases doing nothing at all.

Through the collection of public records from every state agency, the KING 5 Investigators created a database of state employees who were placed on alternate assignment from 2012 to mid-2016. The analysis found roughly 2,200 state employees were put on alternate assignment in that period.

KING 5 found, collectively, the workers were paid $35 million in salaries and an additional $9.1 million in benefits during the three-and-a-half year period.

Many state workers who spoke with KING 5 said their alternate assignments involved menial tasks that wasted their talents. In some cases, these workers said they were given nothing to do at all.

One Department of Corrections employee spent eight months assigned to work in a former prison closet. She said she did no work that benefitted the state, but rather passed the time reading magazines and shopping online for craft supplies such as beading and quilting materials. The worker made $40,200 during that time.

“I sat in a broom closet and was given nothing to do,” said the employee, who eventually resigned her post.

Another Department of Corrections employee spent eight months in the basement at the Monroe Correctional Facility. He said he wasn’t assigned any tasks. Instead, he collected $30,000 in salary reading, watching YouTube videos, and painting signs to hold outside the prison to protest how his employer was treating him.

“It was like I was in prison, like the inmates. I was segregated. I had no human contact. No one ever checked on me, and I was getting paid for nothing that the taxpayers were paying for,” said the employee, who was ultimately fired at the completion of the DOC investigation.

A Labor and Industries customer service specialist spent four months in a cubicle, isolated from others, entering data by hand into an Excel spreadsheet, eight hours a day. She made $20,400 in that time doing work she felt overqualified to be doing.

“(It was) a definite waste,” said Tiffanie Morgan. “(It was) extremely boring. Extremely boring. It’s enough to make you go insane.”

Former DSHS employee Torie Pantier collected $45,000 during her 15-month alternate assignment. She said she spent her time checking out Pinterest and Facebook, playing games on her phone and reading magazines. Pantier said she wanted to do something valuable for DSHS but wasn’t assigned much of anything to do.

“The whole situation is just ridiculous, paying someone to do nothing who wants to do something, who wants to work,” said Pantier. “It’s very hard and almost humbling to sit there and get paid to sit there knowing you’re not doing anything. I’m not helping anybody, I’m not benefitting anybody, I’m not doing what I was hired to do, doing what I’m paid to do. I’m just doing nothing.”

The Governor’s top budget executive said cases such as those must be outliers.

“Most of these people will do work, maybe in another building or slightly different thing but they’ll still be working, and we’ll be paying them for work.  I think it’s the rare case where we can’t find somebody that kind of situation,” said David Schumacher, director of the state’s Office of Financial Management (OFM) and Gov. Inslee’s top budget writer. “I don’t want the impression to be that there’s $30 million that are being somehow wasted.”

Other findings from the KING 5 analysis of public records:

* DSHS, the state’s biggest agency, had the most employees placed on alternate assignments - 1789

* The DOC had the second most – 373

* The Department of Labor and Industries came in third - 15

* 151 workers spent a year or more on alternate assignment.

* 20 people spent two years or more on home assignment.

* 406 people (18 percent) spent two weeks or less on alternate assignment, the amount of time allowed for finishing up an internal investigation as outlined in the home assignment policy.

KING 5 also found that DSHS had the longest single case of alternate assignment – 4.5 years. The former employee is Martha Zable of Yakima, a DSHS case manager. She was accused of falsifying documents – allegations Zable denies and that, in the end, DSHS couldn’t prove. During the investigation, Zable, who has a Masters of Social Work, spent her time filing paperwork, making copies, washing dishes and sorting mail. She earned $207,000 in wages and $55,800 in benefits during the time period.

“Our job is to be a good steward of the taxpayer dollars. If I was a taxpayer, I would be screaming bloody murder. I was paid case manager wages to wash dishes and work in a mailroom. That’s not good stewardship of taxpayer dollars,” said Zable. “It was horrible. They were questioning my morals and ethics…and I was bored to death. There’s only so many ways you can file paperwork. I found things to do to make it look like I was busy.”

The communications director for DSHS said Zable’s case took so long to investigate because of its complex nature. Washington State Patrol investigators spent two years examining the case for possible crimes. The information gathered was then sent to the Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney’s office for possible criminal charges. That office had the case for over two years before deciding not to proceed. DSHS then embarked on an internal investigation that took three additional months. Zable was demoted and eventually resigned.

“The length of an investigation depends on several factors including the volume and complexity of the allegations, whether it is conducted internally or by law enforcement, possible forensic examination of computers, the involvement of legal counsel, and the need to follow personnel rules and the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Additionally, sometimes employees under investigation may go on protected leave which can suspend the administrative investigation process,” said DSHS Senior Director of Communications, DSHS, Adolfo Capestany.

We asked agencies and the OFM director if alternate assignments are being used as a way to skirt around the spirit of the home assignment policy put in place in 2012.

“Absolutely not,” said Tim Church, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Industries. “It’s the livelihood of the people we’re investigating that we’re really talking about. So there’s not a lot of room for error, as much as we’d like to get them over with as quickly as possible we need to get them right so that’s the most important thing.”

“I don’t think we can say that agencies are skirting things. I think agencies are managing often difficult situations that they find themselves in. I know that we would love them to be done in three or four days but some of them for very valid reasons take a little while,” said Schumacher.

KING 5 found the state hasn’t kept track of who is on alternate assignment and for how long.

“That’s very scary,” said former DSHS worker Torie Pantier. “They should know about this. I mean they’re not tracking it we now know. No one’s putting a rush on it. Nobody knows their left hand from their right hand it seems.”

Soon after KING 5 shared the findings with OFM, top budget and human resource officials drafted a new state policy. The memo dated November 2, 2016, directs state agency leaders to report any alternate assignment that lasts longer than 90 days to the Office of Financial Management on a monthly basis.

“It seemed strange to me that we didn’t have a way to answer your question, so as we dug into that. That’s why we came up with the directive. This is a question we should be able to answer. This is a thing we should monitor,” said Schumacher. “Once they get beyond 90 days we want to be able to track that to see if we have a trend that’s going the wrong way.”

Follow Susannah Frame on Twitter @SFrameK5.

Copyright 2016 KING


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