The KING 5 Investigators have found that millions of taxpayer dollars could have been saved long ago if a simple policy on home assignments would have been instituted. It's been a common practice among state agencies for years: when an employee is accused of misconduct on the job, a supervisor “re-assigns” the worker to his or her home, with full pay and benefits, while the state gets to the bottom of the allegations. KING 5 found after two state agencies, the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) instituted policies to simply track and report home assignments, the frequency and cost associated with them plummeted.
Home assignments have been costly for state taxpayers. By analyzing years worth of data from every state agency, the KING 5 Investigators have found that in the last five years, more than 1,000 state employees were put on home assignment at a cost of $17.2 million in salaries and benefits the employees were entitled to. That figure doesn’t include the cost of conducting the investigations or replacing the employee so that state business continues.
Since 2006, no agency sent more people home than the DOC. In the years studied by the reporters, the DOC put 310 employees on home assignment, at a cost of $4.6 million dollars. During that time the agency laid off more than 1,500 employees.
Also, the number of home assignments jumped dramatically at the DOC during that time. Seven employees were put on home assignment in 2006. That number increased 15-fold in 2010. That year 106 employees were being paid to do no work for the agency.
Former DOC employee, Harry Wilson of Forks, Wash., was one of those sent home in 2010.
"Oh, yes, I didn't have to do nothing,” said Wilson. “I could sit in the chair and not do nothing and get paid 18 bucks an hour, plus benefits. Heavens, that's a dream job."
Wilson was a cook at the Clallam Bay Correctional Center in Aberdeen. He was accused of sleeping on the job, not staying on task, and failing to maintain control of his assigned keys. The prison Superintendent sent Wilson home while the state investigated. That lasted nearly six months before they fired him. Wilson denies the allegations. During his home assignment Wilson watched movies and hung out with his dog. He collected a full salary and benefits, which included medical coverage, holiday pay, vacation pay and retirement benefits. It added up to $30,000.
"I figured if they want to play the game like that and pay me for it, that's their prerogative. I could have wrapped that (investigation) up in a week," said Wilson. "It's just pure government waste. They sit there and cry about budget cuts and stuff like that and then they do something like that."
The state's top prison official, Secretary Bernie Warner, says home assignments increased as the agency put an emphasis on educating inmates on reporting sexual misconduct in the prison setting. More inmates made accusations of misconduct which led to more employees sent home.
“Federal law requires that we pro-actively as part of the intake process let offenders know that if they at all believe that they’re being victimized that they need to report that,” said Warner. “So that significantly, I think, resulted in an escalation of allegations against our employees.”
Warner noticed the expensive home assignment trend last year and did something about it. He created a first-ever DOC policy to track and report home assignments to upper management.
"It's proactively saying: ‘Hey can you investigate this more quickly because this person's at home and we're paying for them,’" said Warner. “I think when I send a note that says this needs to be resolved in 30 days, that in effect is an action plan.”
Warner also developed a policy to punish prisoners who drum up fake charges against staff. One of the potential consequences is the loss of an inmate’s good time credit.
“I think what it did is send a message that we take sexual misconduct seriously but it’s not something that should be frivolous,” said Warner.
The strategies worked. The number of home assignments at the DOC dropped from 106 in 2010 to just seven in 2012. Millions of tax dollars were saved by instituting a policy and sticking to it.
"I'm proud of what (these numbers) show, and that's results. I'm hoping next time that we can report that we have zero (employees on home assignment) and we can continue to make progress on that," said Warner.
The Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) made a similar move that garnered immediate results. In 2009 the agency developed a tracking and reporting policy. That resulted in a decline in the number of home assignments from 64 in 2010, to just one case currently pending. Over the time period studied, DSHS paid workers who were sitting home, providing no services for the state, nearly $6 million.
Now other agencies are expected to follow suit. As a result of the first KING 5 story in the “Paid for Nothing” series, Gov. Gregoire issued a statewide directive that makes it mandatory for all agencies to track home assignments and to pass along the data to the State Human Resources Director. Gregoire also issued a mandate that home assignments last no longer than 15 days. If more time is needed, the agency's top official must first sign off on an extension.
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