How would you like to get paid for kicking back and checking out your favorite websites, or playing games on your mobile device? That’s exactly what one state worker did for over a year, while collecting her full salary, benefits, vacation and sick time.
But this isn’t a report about a state employee sneaking around to goof off on your dime. Her managers at a Department of Social and Health Services field office in Vancouver, Wash., knew -- or should have known -- Torie Pantier had no meaningful work to do and instead was left to search around for ways to occupy her time.
“The whole situation is just ridiculous, paying someone to do nothing who wants to do something, who wants to work,” said Pantier.
On March 17, 2015, Pantier’s manager at DSHS told her she was being put on a job reassignment. Her job at the time was child support enforcement officer -- an investigator of sorts who tracks down mothers and fathers who aren’t paying the court ordered support for their children.
The job reassignment was necessary, she was told, because one of the agency’s clients submitted a complaint against Pantier and DSHS needed to investigate. The complainant accused Pantier of providing his ex-wife with confidential information about him taken from state computers. That breach of confidentiality would be a serious violation of DSHS policy.
Watch below for response from DSHS
Pantier’s alternate assignment consisted of stuffing envelopes, which she said took her about an hour a day to complete. The other seven hours she spent studying for a class, looking for other jobs on her phone, reading magazines such as "Martha Stewart Living," "Consumer Reports" and "Food and Wine," as well as posting on Facebook and Pinterest and playing Words with Friends and Yahtzee on her mobile device.
“She would just sit in there and play on Facebook and games. She didn’t have anything to do but she had to be there,” said one co-worker.
“She was mostly looking for something to do. I’m sure she was bored out of her mind,” said another co-worker.
“Everyone was well aware,” said Pantier. “My supervisor always saw me on my phone and would ask me how I was doing. I’d say ‘Good, I’m all caught up so I’m just playing games,’ and we’d both kind of awkwardly laugh about it and she’d apologize.”
“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 benefiting anybody, I’m not doing what I was hired to do, doing what I’m paid to do. I’m just doing nothing,” said Pantier.
It took DSHS and Washington State Patrol investigators 15 months to come to a conclusion. During that time Pantier collected nearly $50,000 in wages, plus full benefits.
“It’s a complete waste. I would be outraged if I were not the one sitting here and I’m listening to this. I would be mad that I’m paying for that,” said Pantier.
According to documents provided to KING by Pantier, although she was originally accused of sharing state records to one third party, state investigators ended up accusing her of accessing dozens of files that were not related to her official duties, involving dozens of people. Pantier denies these allegations, but the senior director of communications for DSHS, Adolfo Capestany, said that explains the lengthy investigation – it was a complicated case involving a multitude of alleged acts of misconduct.
“If we have an individual being investigated for misuse of systems, accessing client information we have to immediately act and we have to be very methodical to make sure we gather evidence as well as bringing in forensic experts, and we don’t have a lot of those in state government. (And) some of it is limited resources,” said Capestany. “
Job reassignments for state workers under investigation for alleged wrongdoing became a go-to practice five years ago after a series of reports by the KING 5 Investigators exposed a wasteful practice at most state agencies called "home assignments." Workers were routinely sent home while under investigation. KING 5 found employees sitting at home, doing nothing for the state, and getting paid for it for months, and even years.
Former state employee Tammy Jo France collected her checks for more than three-and-a-half years before getting terminated.
“So I sat here playing Farmville and getting all my benefits and wages,” said France in 2011.
KING 5 analyzed home assignment records from 2007 to 2012 and found state agencies spent $17.2 million in wages and benefits during that time period on state workers who weren’t doing any work for the state.
“Am I thankful I got paid? Yes, I am. But it was still wrong, the way I got paid because I did nothing to earn my paycheck,” said France.
Then-Gov. Chris Gregoire agreed the practice was wrong. Three weeks after the first KING report aired she issued an executive order to stop the wasteful spending.
“It is absolutely unacceptable for a state employee to be on paid leave for years at a time. We can’t have state employees sitting at home collecting taxpayer dollars for doing no work,” said Gregoire at the time.
Five years later, by statute, long home assignments are a thing of the past. But Pantier thinks what replaced them -- job reassignments -- are a way to skirt around the rules.
“Most definitely, in some ways it much worse. I’d rather be at home being productive cleaning, being with my children, something. Instead of being at work with everyone I work with watching me do nothing,” said Pantier.
Capestany said no one in the giant agency of 17,500 employees is on home assignment currently, and the agency is collecting records for KING 5 to find out how many are on job reassignments. He said especially when law enforcement gets involved, as in Pantier’s case, the investigations can take several months.
“We act on them. We take them seriously,” said Capestany. “Sometimes (the investigations) take longer than we’d all like them to be.”
Capestany said job reassignments, however long they last, should consist of meaningful work for the employee under investigation and that if managers are not providing that direction, change needs to take place.
“If we find out that’s the situation in one of our offices then we should be taking action to stop that. That’s not what the taxpayers expect us to do,” said Capestany.
Torie Pantier said getting stuck in a cubicle with nothing to do was the worst 15 months of her life. Medical records show she spiraled into anxiety and depression, and had suicidal thoughts.
“It’s affected my relationships, my family, definitely my children. (I was) coming home just crying, just all of the time crying. (I was very) upset, embarrassed, humiliated. (I) missed a lot of work. It’s just been so hard,” said Pantier.
Pantier hopes her experience will put a stop to long, drawn out, wasteful job reassignments.
“Honestly sometimes there were times when I literally think I was forgotten about,” said Pantier. “I can’t be the only one. I can’t be the only one. It makes you wonder how many other people are sitting somewhere.”
The KING 5 Investigators are collecting documentation from all state agencies to find out how many people have been put on job reassignments since long home assignments were banned. After hearing about the records requests, some state workers have contacted KING 5 to say they have been on extended job reassignments with little to do. Some report being put in basement offices without a computer, telephone, or real assignment.
KING 5 will report the findings after all of the documentation is analyzed.
Torie Pantier was fired on June 24. Investigators did not find any evidence to substantiate the claim made by the client that Pantier had provided documents to his ex-wife.
“When the investigation was concluded, even though there was no evidence to substantiate you disseminated the documents, there is evidence that your accessed several confidential programs, searching for personal confidential information for non-related business reasons on family, friends and their associates. You violated several policies,” wrote the investigators in a termination letter.
Pantier admits to looking into two files not on her caseload but insists she did not do so for personal gain and did not share information with any outside party. She’s currently fighting the termination through her union.
“I relocated (to Vancouver). I came down here to take this job and it was a nightmare. It just really was a nightmare.”
-- Follow Susannah Frame on Twitter: @SFrameK5.
Copyright 2016 KING