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State to look at agencies’ overtime pay

The Olympian

Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget staffers are looking into rumors that state agencies have undercut the expected $73 million in savings from planned furlough days by paying overtime to replacement workers.

Rumors of overtime payments at state welfare and children and family services offices have abounded for months — even before the first round of temporary layoffs took effect in early July.

“We have heard those rumors. We are expecting an overtime report in the next two weeks for the month of July,” spokesman Glenn Kuper of the Office of Financial Management said this week, referring to a formal Department of Personnel data report in the works. “We will be scrutinizing that … to make sure agencies are not using overtime to compensate for the furlough costs.”

There’s no evidence yet that overtime is being paid, Kuper said.

The Washington Federation of State Employees has warned since the Democratic-controlled Legislature debated Senate Bill 6503’s furlough plan in the spring that overtime costs threatened any projected savings. The union has pointed out that overtime costs undercut Oregon’s effort to save money from temporary layoffs of state workers in 2009. But that state’s layoffs included prison workers, whose positions could not be left unfilled.

Washington’s furlough law was designed to exempt specific job categories, such as emergency services, prison and custodial workers, State Patrol troopers and emergency dispatchers, and state health lab workers. The law also exempts workers who bring money in to the state coffers, such as state-run liquor store clerks and Department of Revenue agents.

The federation, which represents nearly 40,000 state workers, is fighting the furloughs on multiple tracks, spokesman Tim Welch said. He said a lawsuit is pending in Thurston County Superior Court over the furloughs, and the union has filed unfair-labor complaints with the Public Employment Relations Commission. No hearing date is set.

The federation also has encouraged members to file whistleblower complaints with the state auditor to help identify where overtime might be paid, and it wants to forward concerns to the state Productivity Board and to Gregoire’s budget transformation committee, which is looking at ways to save money.

“It’s not uncommon in a situation like this, you don’t know the full impact until the dust is settled,” Welch said. “Everyone says this is what is happening; it is a ’wink-wink (that) overtime will be approved.’ No one will say it’s tied to furloughs. But no one here is stupid. … What’s happening is happening.”

Welch said e-mails from workers in the state’s biggest agency, the Department of Social and Health Services, suggest overtime is being authorized at community service offices. But some e-mails Welch shared with a reporter refer to overtime that was to be paid for work taking place at least one week after the July furloughs.

DSHS spokesman Thomas Shapley said the agency does use overtime in some cases to plug gaps in its work force, which he said is 2,000 workers smaller than it was in June 2008. The overtime helps select units manage growing caseloads during the economic downturn, but the extra pay is not designed to be authorized to replace workers who went on furlough, Shapley said.

“First and foremost, there is strict executive management direction here that temporary layoffs not be managed by overtime. It’s coming from the top,” he said.

Shapley added that the agency has an incentive not to use overtime for furloughed workers. That is because DSHS must live within its means as set by the Legislature, and that means saving the agency’s share of the furlough cuts.

The Office of Financial Management estimates that statewide, the furloughs can save $73 million, including $38 million in the general fund and $35 million in other funds.

Kuper said Financial Management is hearing anecdotally from agencies that they are following guidelines to avoid overtime. If agencies do pay overtime, they are on the hook to find the savings elsewhere, Kuper said.

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