September 12, 2008 in Idaho

Disability benefit cut in half

State employees on paid sick leave will now be laid off after 12 weeks
Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
 

BOISE – Idaho state employees who become seriously ill and go on disability leave will be laid off after 12 weeks rather than six months, the Otter administration has decided.

The change in rules for state workers, one of several implemented by Gov. Butch Otter’s Division of Human Resources on Aug. 24, has angered state employees and lawmakers who say they weren’t informed.

“That’s going to create a more difficult atmosphere for us to work in, in the coming session,” said Sen. John Andreason, R-Boise, chairman of the Senate Commerce and Human Resources Committee. “I have people calling me, telling me how difficult it is holding on to their highly qualified employees now. With this kind of a change it’s going to become more difficult.”

A union that represents about 450 state employees held a rally against the rule changes this week and is calling on workers and others to weigh in during a public comment period starting Oct. 1.

“It’s mean – it’s mean-spirited,” said Alex Neiwirth, organizer for the Idaho Association of Government Employees Local 687, affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. “Who wants to be the person that tells someone, ‘OK, well, good luck. I hope your cancer treatment goes well, but your job’s not going to be here if it takes you more than three months’?”

Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, D-Boise, a human resources professional and member of the House Commerce and Human Resources Committee, called the rule changes “appalling” and “unconscionable.”

“I don’t know the logic – I just don’t know why this has been done, and without notice,” she said.

Judie Wright, administrator of the state Division of Human Resources, said that rule change and another – eliminating a provision that allows state employees to take up to two paid hours off for occasional medical appointments – were included in a wide-ranging package of temporary rules that took effect Aug. 24. Most of the changes updated obsolete and duplicative rules to match state laws.

“It just allowed agencies the opportunity to be able to fill some of those critical positions quicker” when an employee is out on disability, Wright said. Ill workers who are laid off are placed on a register; after they recover, they’re eligible for rehiring if the agency has an opening in a comparable job.

Wright said Idaho has about 400 employees on short-term medical disability, and 55 of those have been laid off because they reached the six-month mark. “That’s out of 24,000 employees,” she said. “It’s pretty rare that there’s actually a layoff.”

The new rule isn’t retroactive, so it only affects workers who went on short-term medical disability after Aug. 24. Idaho law allows temporary agency rules to be imposed immediately, before state legislative review, but only in emergencies, when federal deadlines or other laws require the changes, or when the rule changes “confer a benefit.”

Neiwirth said the union thinks the changes fall short of criteria for temporary rule changes.

Wright said her office disagrees. The disability layoff change matches the time frame in the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, she said, which requires employees nationwide to be given unpaid leave to care for ill family members for as long as 12 weeks.

She added that the medical-appointment rule change “confers a benefit” to taxpayers because it saves money by requiring employees to use sick leave for those appointments.

No statute ever authorized the leave for medical appointments, Wright said; it was created by rule and proved “really hard to manage.”

State employees get 96 hours of sick leave a year, or about one day for each month worked. Neiwirth noted that state employees can accrue sick leave from year to year and use that accrued leave to pay for health coverage at retirement, “so they try to use as little of that as they can. Now they have to use it for their diagnostic and preventive care.”

He added: “We think the change will actually cost money because it’s discouraging women from taking the time to go and get their mammogram or men from going in and getting their prostate check. That has costs that are long-term.”

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or bzrussell@gmail.com. For more news from Boise go to www.spokesmanreview.com/ boise.


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