State pays workers to sit home and do nothing

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by SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @SFrameK5

KING5.com

Posted on October 10, 2011 at 10:00 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 10:01 AM

TACOMA, Wash. -- Since 2007 at least 350 state employees have been instructed to sit home and collect a paycheck, vacation, sick days and full benefits. All they have to do is stay at home during their shift and be near the phone in case the state needs their service.

These employees are on "home assignment" because they’ve been accused of wrongdoing on the job. The idea is to keep them away from the workplace so the state can conduct a swift and fair investigation.

The KING 5 Investigators have found there’s nothing swift about some of these investigations. Through public records, KING 5 identified employees who have been on the clock, but off the job for weeks, months, and in some cases years; all at taxpayer expense.

Tammy Jo France of Tacoma worked for seven years as a residential rehabilitation counselor at the Special Commitment Center (SCC) on McNeil Island, where the state houses the most dangerous sexually violent predators.

But for the majority of those years, France never stepped foot on McNeil Island. Instead, her workday involved activities such as making coffee in her kitchen, taking care of her cat, tending to her garden and playing the popular Facebook game, Farmville.

"That was how I worked; in my residence playing Farmville," said France. "Am I thankful that I got paid? Yes, I am. But it was still wrong, the way I got paid, because I did nothing to earn my paycheck."

The taxpayers of Washington state paid France to sit at home while collecting a salary of $36,500 a year plus vacation, sick pay and full benefits. The pay while sitting at home also boosted her pension. This routine went on for three years and seven months. It sounds like a version of winning the lottery, but France says the extended time at home was an insult to taxpayers and other state workers. She actually wanted to work.

“You have all kinds of state workers around this state that had to take furlough days off, without pay, because the state didn’t have money. But yet (they) had money enough to pay me to sit home for three and a half years,” said France. “How do you justify that?”

DSHS sent France home in 2007 after a convicted rapist at the SCC accused her of smuggling pornography and food into the facility for him and of secretly borrowing money from him.

The Washington State Patrol and the FBI launched an investigation. France received a letter from DSHS telling her she was officially on paid leave until the investigation concluded. A portion of that letter states:

You are assigned to your home with full pay and benefits until further notice. While at home you are required to remain at your residence and reachable by telephone at all times during your normal scheduled work shift (which)…will be 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Your days off will continue to be Saturday and Sunday.

"I was a prisoner in my own home from 8 to 4 Monday through Friday," said France. “You can only clean so much. You can only read so much. You can only watch TV so much. It’s like being in a prison.”

The KING 5 Investigators have found the state's paid many other employees to sit on the couch. Some for just a few days, while other home assignments went on for three months, 6 months, a year and longer.

A Department of Corrections Registered Nurse, with an annual salary of $75,000, hung out at home with pay and benefits for nearly two years before the DOC fired him for having sex with at least one inmate.

A DSHS social worker who earned $53,000 a year, got paid to stay at home for a year and eight months before they fired him for exploiting a vulnerable adult.

In the four years worth of data reviewed by KING 5, Tammy Jo France set the record for the longest home assignment.

“(That is) completely unacceptable. That never should have happened. She should have never been on home assignment for over three years," said Tracy Guerin, the DSHS Chief of Staff.

Guerin says France’s time at home was so long because the Attorney General’s Office advised them to hold off on making a decision about her employment until the criminal investigation ended. The Washington State Patrol and the FBI were investigating the same allegations lodged against her by the SCC resident.

The KING 5 Investigators obtained the joint Washington State Patrol / FBI report which concluded there was not enough evidence to file criminal charges against France. That report is dated December 6, 2008. But the home assignment didn't end there. France sat home for two more years after law enforcement wrapped things up.

Guerin says managers at DSHS blew it.
 
"It sounds like it was just bad decisions. It's only advice. We don't have to do what they (the Assistant Attorney Generals) say. They advise us. They're our attorneys. It's still our choice. We own it. We made a bad decision at the department (DSHS). We should have taken an action or we should have had her here at work," said Guerin. “That wouldn’t happen under this administration.”

Over the years France said she would have liked to work in some capacity, but the phone never rang.

“I would have done anything. People think, 'Wow, you get to sit home and get paid,' but after a while, where’s your self-worth?” said France.

Guerin agrees. DSHS has a new policy that the agency needs to find some type of work for employees under investigation. DSHS is also now requiring top officials to sign off on any home assignment.

“There’s no reason...to stay on staff, at home, not working and being paid by state government,” said Guerin.

DSHS finally fired France in March of this year for the accusations made by the sex offender in 2007. She vehemently denies the allegations and plans to sue the state for wrongful termination.

“I did not do any of these things that I’ve been accused of. I’m not in prison. (I have) no criminal charges. I have no criminal record,” said France. “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.”

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