Millions wasted paying state workers to do nothing

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by SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @SFrameK5

KING5.com

Posted on February 6, 2012 at 10:50 PM

Updated Monday, Feb 6 at 11:51 PM

"Paid for Nothing" is a continuing investigation by KING 5 News that has uncovered millions of taxpayer dollars wasted to pay state workers to sit at home and do nothing for the state.

Since 2006, the state of Washington has paid more than 1,000 state employees to stay at home at taxpayer expense. That has cost taxpayers $13.5 million for the employees’ salaries and $3.7 million more in benefits, for a total of $17.2 million.

"Oh my gosh. Wow! That's incredible," said House Minority Deputy Leader Joel Kretz (R-Wauconda). "That's a lot of money. (That’s) money that comes out of the taxpayers’ dollars that could be solving the budget problem. (It) could be going to schools, developmentally disabled people, you know, the real priorities," said Kretz.
 
The employees were paid to do nothing for the state because they’d been put on home assignment while under investigation for allegations of misconduct on the job. Examples include accusations of sexually exploiting a prison inmate, stealing from the state, and harassing co-workers.

Home assignments direct the employee to remain at home during his or her normal shift so that a fair and swift investigation can take place. The employee is also directed to be near a phone in case the state agency needs his or her service.

That’s what former DSHS social worker Bill Larson of Tacoma did for nearly two years.

"It was terrible. It was like being in prison,” said Larson. “I would rather be working, contributing something, doing something, helping some people. That’s why I got into social work in the first place,” said Larson.

Larson was accused of using his state computer for personal reasons and contacting clients who weren't on his caseload. Larson says the charges are bogus.

"It was a sham investigation that cost the state of Washington thousands and thousands of dollars," said Larson.

DSHS eventually fired Larson after the agency paid him $115,000 in salary in full benefits during the 20 months he was on home assignment.  In a letter he was directed to “Perform no (DSHS) work” while at home.

"I always felt very guilty about that but I was hoping at some point I would get my job back," said Larson. "And it certainly isn't fair to the taxpayers of the state of Washington that are picking up the cost of me staying home, doing nothing."

The KING 5 Investigators started looking into home assignments last year, after being contacted by a former DSHS employee, Tammy Jo France. France was a residential counselor at the Special Commitment Center (SCC) on McNeil Island, which houses the state’s sexually violent predators.

France sat at home for three-and-a-half years, with full pay and benefits, while the state investigated her for allegations of smuggling porn into the SCC and of borrowing money from one of the convicted rapists housed there.

"State people are losing their jobs. How do you justify paying someone who sat at home for three-and-a-half-years?" said France.

France collected nearly $200,000 in salary and benefits, including full medical coverage, vacation pay, sick pay and holiday pay. She also boosted her pension during that time.
    
"You're either right or you're wrong. And if I was wrong it shouldn't take you three and a half years to fire me," said France.

After looking into the France case last year the KING 5 Investigators attempted to collect data from the state to ascertain how many other state employees had been put on home assignment and how much that cost taxpayers. The reporters found the state’s data was inaccurate and incomplete. There was no statewide tracking of home assignments.

Breakdown of findings

KING submitted separate requests for public records to 90 state agencies to find out the extent of the practice and cost. After an analysis of five year’s worth of data KING found:

• More than 1000 employees have been on home assignment.

• More than 50 employees were paid to sit at home for a year or more.

• Approximately 100 employees were on home assignment for at least 6 months.

• The number of home assignments increased every year from 112 in 2006 to 245 in 2010.

• In 2011 there was a slight decrease: 224 employees were on home assignment.

• The cost of paying employees on home assignment increased every year from $918,000 in 2006  to $4.2 million in 2010.

• In 2011 there was a decrease in the cost: $3.8 million paid in salaries and benefits.

• A Department of Corrections psychiatrist collected the most: $247,000 during 14 months at home.

State reaction

Eva Santos is the director of Washington State Human Resources. She says leaving workers at home, getting paid, for extended periods of time is not appropriate.

“It’s unacceptable. It’s plain unacceptable and it shouldn’t be,” said Santos.

Santos says she was disappointed she didn’t know this practice was so prevalent and cost the state so much money until KING 5 brought it to the attention of her office. She says the problem was that most state agencies weren't tracking home assignments and weren’t reporting the data to her office.

"Remember, the authority to make those decisions rests with the agency heads. I expect agency heads should know this information and should be able to give us answers,” said Santos. “Each agency is responsible for using those resources appropriately and nobody should be sitting at home for six months and out, doing nothing.”

Action taken

Santos said that’s changing now. As a result of KING 5’s first story in the “Paid for Nothing” series, the Governor sent out a directive to all state agencies. It instructs agencies to track home assignments and to report the data to Santos. It also directs them to get permission from top agency leadership if a home assignment needs to last more than 15 days.

Before the directive, the agency that put Bill Larson and Tammy Jo France on extended home assignments, DSHS, implemented a policy to curb them.

“We can put all kinds of excuses out there, but the reality is we should have a handle on it and that's what we're all about from here on out," said Santos.
 
The KING 5 series also led to the formation of a committee of statewide HR directors to find other ways to save money.

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