Behavioral Healthcare Department Says Union Restrictions, Big Changes Increased Overtime

State officials in the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) recently offered their defense of the Ocean State Current’s series of articles on the significant amount of money the state spends on overtime payments.

Recent articles have started to lay out how the $89.6 million dollars spent on overtime and other salary premiums in fiscal year 2011 was spent on state employees like nurses, laundry workers, institutional attendants, and community living aides.

In response to the articles, Craig Stenning, director of BHDDH, said he felt that there are two different issues at play: the amount the department is spending overall on overtime, and why some individuals earn so much more than others for overtime.

Stenning said it was the combination of a statewide public employee hiring freeze instituted in 2009, and the high number of retirements after the overhaul of the state pension system, that led to the high reliance on overtime to staff BHDDH’s facilities.

According to figures provided by BHDDH, the department spent $19.8 million in overtime in 2010, $20.0 million in 2011, and $18.3 million in 2012. The department is estimating the 2013 cost at $17.9 million.

Included in those figures are the salaries of nurses who made over $250,000 a year, community living aides who made close to $130,000, and laundry workers who made over $100,000.

“We have some high hitters,” said Stenning. “There is no way to mitigate that unless we renegotiate the way the call system works.”

Different categories of employees have different rules for who gets first dibs on overtime shifts, but almost all involve giving senior employees discretion. Overtime rules are all part of contract negotiations with public employee labor unions.

Stenning said there are some employees who will take every shift that comes open, and there are others who refuse overtime shifts altogether.

“Yes, there are some people who will work as many or more hours of overtime as they do their regular hours. I’ve asked some of them if they’d like me to suggest some hobbies for them,” said Stenning.

But Stenning also was quick to say that the numbers listed under “overtime” include more than just payments for extra hours worked.

The state lumps all salary enhancements under the heading “overtime.” Numbers reported under overtime also include:

  • Longevity payments — similar to an automatic bonus — that range from 5 percent to 20 percent of an employee’s regular pay. The top rate is paid when an individual has worked for the state for more than 25 years. Longevity payments are no longer paid out to new hires, and current state employees are frozen at their 2011 rates.
  • Supplemental payments for higher degrees, which range from $1,000 a year for one certification to $4,200 a year for a master’s degree and two nursing certifications.
  • Weekend stipends added to pay, from $36 a shift to $144 a shift depending on how many hours an employee has worked on a weekend.
  • Employees are also paid overtime pay for their regular work hours if a state emergency is declared and other state employees don’t have to work.

Even with these extras, the amount the state was paying out in just overtime was high, but Stenning said that was primarily because the department was not adequately staffed.

When he came in to BHDDH at the beginning of Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s term in office the department was filling regular shifts with overtime because it did not have enough employees to cover all of the shifts, Stenning said.

Just as the department was trying to fill those positions, a number of state employees left after the pension overhaul.

“That was the hole we were working ourselves out of,” said Stenning.

Given the nature of the department’s work with the state’s developmentally disabled and severely mentally ill residents, even with the cutbacks the department had to continue to staff its facilities, which run around the clock.

The main facilities run by BHDDH include Eleanor Slater Hospital, including its Zambarano Unit, and a series of 25 group homes for developmentally disabled adults, listed as part of the Rhode Island Community Living and Supports (RICLAS) division.

Stenning said his department has taken several steps to reduce its overtime payments, including reducing the amount of time it takes to hire a state employee.

The department asked for and received permission to start a “continuous recruitment” process, which was up and running by last summer. Before continuous recruitment, it took up to six months to hire a new employee and included 22 separate steps. It now takes the department about two months to hire a new employee, said Deborah George, human resources director for the department.

The department also negotiated with unions to increase the number of “seasonal” employees — who are more like temporary employees — who can fill positions as they open up. Seasonal employees are not paid state benefits.

Under union stipulations, seasonal employees can work for no more than 90 days before being moved to permanent positions, and the state is limited as to the number of seasonal employees it can have on staff at a time.

The state wanted to include seasonal IAPs — psychiatric institutional attendants — but the union would not open discussions on hiring seasonal IAPs because the position is seen as a step-up from a certified nursing assistant, said Paul Despres, CEO of Eleanor Slater Hospital.

Right now the state only has 85 IAPs out of 130 open positions, he said.

Despres pointed out that IAPs, and other caregivers at Eleanor Slater, are dealing with adult psychiatric patients, who are “the most compromised, the most challenging population.”

The department recently held two job fairs to recruit for open community living aide and certified nursing assistant positions.

In the meantime, Stenning said he has put a hold on overtime utilization by employees who are not in direct-care positions, like laundry workers, and he said the department is continuing to try to fill open positions.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in The Ocean State Current, including text, graphics, images, and information are solely those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the views and opinions of The Current, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, or its members or staff. The Current cannot be held responsible for information posted or provided by third-party sources. Readers are encouraged to fact check any information on this web site with other sources.

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