Comp time ‘can of worms’

BOISE – Ten of Idaho’s state agency directors could take a month off work tomorrow just from the comp time they’ve built up – but that’s not what most are choosing to do.

In the year and a half since state lawmakers authorized compensatory time off for the state’s top employees, most have run up about twice as much comp time as they’ve actually taken off, according to records provided under the Idaho Public Records Law.

“I don’t have time to take off,” said Roger Madsen, director of the state Department of Commerce and Labor, whose comp-time hours quickly ran up to the 240-hour cap after the system took effect in July 2004. “It doesn’t bother me because I love my job – it’s a fascinating job.”

Two state agency directors have taken 140 hours each – about 31/2 weeks – in comp time in 2005, in addition to a week of vacation, according to state records.

The figures show no widespread pattern of abuse, and it may be too soon to tell if the new comp-time system has improved how the state monitors and compensates its highest-level employees. But some lawmakers see cause for concern.

Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, D-Boise, who has operated a human resources consulting business in the Boise area for 15 years, said the law “has the potential of being a real can of worms. … You’re taking the most expensive people in the work force and you’re giving them comp time, when they already had the ability to flex-schedule.”

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said, “If they’ve got 240 hours or a month of comp time and all of a sudden they take it, you’re in trouble.”

Backers of the new law say it beats the previous system, which basically required state managers to lie on time cards, reporting that they worked 40 hours a week whether they did or not. Now, state agency heads must report when they’re working and when they’re not, down to the hour.

“It was a first stab at trying to have the comings and goings of executives accountable,” said Dan Goicoechea, chief of staff for state Controller Keith Johnson. Now, Goicoechea said, “Their time sheet’s accurate, it’s legal, it’s really what they worked.”

To examine the impact of the new law, The Spokesman-Review made a public records request to the controller’s office for comp-time balances, accruals and usage for all state agency heads. The figures were provided without names and agencies attached, as the office cited the personnel records exemption in the public records law as a reason not to release records of specific, named state employees.

However, several state agency heads readily discussed the comp-time law and how it’s affected them.

“It hasn’t impacted how much I work or anything like that,” said state Department of Lands Director Winston Wiggins. “I’ve taken a few of those hours off.” But Wiggins said even if he had a huge comp-time balance, he couldn’t take off a long stretch of time from work.

“I assume all executive agency directors have duties that play more into how and when you take time off than whether or not the time is available,” he said. “That’s kind of the way I look at it.”

Even two agency heads who took the 140 hours of comp time off this year spread it out, taking no more than a week at a time.

The new law, SB 1282 in 2004, decreed that the time never could be paid off in cash.

“That was a crucial point for us,” said Goicoechea, who worked on the bill.

Executive-level employees were ineligible for comp-time payoffs before, but some got them anyway, with approval of the state Board of Examiners. A top Fish and Game employee was approved for a $14,000 comp-time payoff in June 2001, for work to implement technology projects, according to Board of Examiners records. Two Idaho Transportation Department executive-level employees got payoffs of about $12,000 each in May 2000 for hours worked on an integrated financial management system.

“It became quite clear prior to the 2004 (legislative) session that some agencies came forward and asked for this, and some agencies didn’t,” said Ann Heilman, state director of human resources. “My view as the state human resources expert was this is inconsistent and unfair.”

The old system also had a quirk, Heilman said, in that it required top executives to say they had worked 40 hours even if they had worked far more, but to take vacation time if they needed, say, a half-day off to attend a funeral – even if they had really worked 80 hours the previous week.

“It was a very funky system,” she said. “The expectation was if you need to leave for a valid reason, you need to charge it to one of your leave balances, but if you worked more, it just vanished, it vaporized.”

That’s partly because hours, by law, are the basis on which retirement, vacation and other state employee benefits are calculated. That meant even executives who were treated as salaried, non-hourly employees had to turn in time cards.

Pasley-Stuart said that makes little sense to her. “They are not hourly employees,” she said. “The minute you start keeping track of your job in terms of hours, you have a completely different mindset than you do if you work till the work is done. … You are there to do a job, and however long it takes you, that’s how you get paid. You are salaried, and you’re well-compensated for that.”

Sen. Dick Compton, R-Coeur d’Alene, shares that concern. Compton, who worked 32 years as an executive for IBM, said, “When you sign up to be the manager of a department, one thing that goes along with it is that there are sometimes extra hours. … I don’t think we should have to be keeping track of those hours and minutes for those people at the executive level.”

Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, agreed. “There’s a premium, I think, for being a manager, and I don’t think it’s based upon the number of hours you work,” he said. “I don’t think managers ought to look at the clock and say ‘I quit’ after 40 hours.”

However, both Clark and Compton voted for the 2004 law, which passed the Senate unanimously and passed 48-13 in the House. At the time, many lawmakers were concerned about accountability. One short-tenured state agency head refused to move to Boise and attempted to run his department from eastern Idaho.

“Conservative legislators want to keep track of these agency directors that are political appointees,” Heilman said.

“I would’ve been more concerned if they were able to cash it in for pay,” Clark said. “I wouldn’t have gone for that.”

But Pasley-Stuart said she worries that the new system gives top managers an incentive to take comp time instead of their vacation time, and unused vacation time does get paid off in cash at the end of state employment.

“It has the potential of being very, very expensive,” she said.

Agency heads get vacation time at the same rates as all state employees – they earn about 12 days a year for their first five years, and increasing amounts for each additional five years of state employment. Unused vacation can roll over from year to year, but there’s a cap: 192 hours for the first five years, with escalators up to 336 hours after 20 years.

Goicoechea said the new comp-time law might mean some directors would use less of their vacation, but noted, “They worked those hours.”

Heilman, whose comp-time balance is just two hours after she ran it up and then took off more than a week’s worth earlier this year, said the law has helped boost state employees’ morale. “It holds their directors to the same accountability that they have to have,” she said. “I think it’s OK to hold your directors accountable for hourly if that’s the law.”

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