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NBC 10 I -Team: State employees placed on leave with pay for months, years

State employees at home. The NBC 10 I-Team, through requests for public info, find a number of state workers on leave and collecting pay pending an investigation. (WJAR)
State employees at home. The NBC 10 I-Team, through requests for public info, find a number of state workers on leave and collecting pay pending an investigation. (WJAR)
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State employees earning more than $140,000 each – are at home on paid leave for months – and in some cases more than a year.

The NBC 10 I-Team has uncovered what some consider a flaw in the state’s paid administrative leave policy – a policy that is costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

At home on your dime

The NBC 10 I-Team uncovered that in 2016, 51 Department of Administration-controlled state employees, were placed on administrative leave with pay, according to a series of public records requests that did not include sick or family leave.

One of those employees is a supervisor at the Rhode Island Training School earning an annual salary of $146,990. He was placed on leave by the Department of Children Youth & Family in September 2015, for reasons the DOC would not disclose. It is state policy not to comment on potentially-sensitive personnel matters. He has now been home for 20 months and has collected a total of $226,138 in that time.

That supervisor is not alone, four other workers were placed on leave that same year. But that number jumped in 2016, when 51 state employees were forced on leave, and some remained at home for six months or more collecting $75,000 to $150,000, according to information provided by the DOA.

“It is never the intent of the state to place an employee on administrative leave for a long period of time,” DOA Spokeswoman Brenna McCabe said. “However, personnel investigations are complex matters and can sometimes take some time to conclude, depending upon the case.”

Going with the flow

Dennis Greico represents two of those employees who were placed on leave as they sit out the legal process with their cases. One has been on paid administrative leave for more than a year and the other was “separated from state service” after being on leave for nearly nine months.

One client is a doctor at the Department of Corrections, who also runs her own private medical practice. The doctor, with a $140,092 salary, was placed on paid leave in March 2016 and has received a total of $145,576 from the state since that time and will continue to receive her pay until she’s asked to return to work or the state removes her from employment.

Another client, a medical doctor who’s been out of work with pay since May 2016, was a physician administrator at the Eleanor Slater Hospital, the state’s psychiatric hospital, when he was placed on leave.

The doctor, who earns $149,155, was on leave at home for nearly nine months. During that time, he collected $100,391. State data provided to the NBC 10 I-Team first showed the status of the doctor’s leave was still listed as “pending” and neither the doctor nor Greico would comment on the case. That changed a week later when the DOA said the doctor was no longer working for the state.

After initially declining to comment, the doctor changed his mind and spoke with the NBC 10 I-Team about his time on leave saying he did volunteer work while waiting for the process to be completed. While he would not talk about the reason he was on leave, he did say he decided to retire at the end of January and that issue should have been handled at the agency level, but wasn’t. Instead he said, the state took its own time and legal wrangling and he just “went along with the flow.”

Nobody has been hired to fill his position or take over his duties, according to BHDDH. “Because there are three other physician administrators there was no need to fill the position or replace him,” Jenna Mackevich, a BHDDH spokeswoman said.

“After he was put on leave, the existing medical staff was able to cover his case load. In addition, a medical unit was closed – due to completely other reasons—allowing for plenty of time for other doctors to see all of their patients,” Mackevich said.

The doctor was one of 22 other BHDDH employees placed on leave in 2016. The state would not provide an answer on why and deferred back to an original statement.

“It’s important to note that administrative leave does not necessarily imply wrongdoing,” McCabe said. “Administrative leave can be issued for a variety of reasons, including to remove an employee from his or her work area in order to investigate an incident.”

A knee-jerk reaction

Greico would not discuss his clients’ cases, but told the NBC 10 I-Team that the state reacts to all incidents involving employees the same way – with a knee-jerk reaction – by immediately placing them and keeping them on leave for too long during an investigation regardless of the circumstances or allegations against them.

“In the most general of terms, if there was a circumstance or instance where having the employee remain at work where it would be disruptive or if there’s a circumstance where there is violence or allegations of violence at the workplace, there’s a reasonable circumstance to have that person not work for a period of time until the state has a chance to investigate what occurred,” Greico said.

“Absent that kind of circumstance, it seems unreasonable for the state to not let the employee work,” he said.

A flawed system

While some isolated cases merit that the employee remain home and away from the workplace, most cases Grieco says he’s dealt with do not.

That, he and others say, is a flawed system that needs fixing.

Michael Stenhouse, founder of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, said keeping employees on leave for months “demonstrates an abject disdain by the political class of taxpayers, and lack of respect for taxpayer funds.”

“Not only are these people sitting on their couch at home getting paid for doing nothing, but they’re still probably getting full health care benefits, still probably accumulating pension time, taxpayers will have to pay more again for them doing nothing when it’s time for them to retire,” Stenhouse told I-Team Reporter Parker Gavigan.

Leave does not equal vacation

“In the course of the 20 some odd years in this career, I’ve represented a number of state employees put on administrative leave with pay and they didn’t want to be on leave with pay – they wanted to work,” Greico said.

Being on leave, despite collecting their salary, is not ideal for all employees – especially for many who are placed on leave for reasons that are far from being newsworthy and those who want to work and not be on leave during an investigation, according to Grieco.

“There’s this impression when state employees are out on leave with pay they want to be out of work like it is a paid vacation,” he said. “Many clients I represent did not want to be on leave.”

Moving at glacial pace

Sources, however, tell the NBC 10 I-Team that the state moves at too slow a pace to process the investigations and that it’s not only unfair to the employees, but it’s also unfair to Rhode Island taxpayers who are footing the bill for employees to remain home for months and, in some cases, more than a year.

The NBC 10 I-Team asked the doctor, who is now retired, whether the process is too long and fair to taxpayers. “It probably was,” he said of his own leave. “It had to do with the leadership, the medical director and BHDDH – that was their decision.”

My principle is to do the right thing – you defend yourself,” he added.

“Can it be changed or improved, I don’t know,” the doctor said. “It depends on who’s on the other side of the table.”

The state, however, says it stands by its process. McCabe said that each employee must be properly afforded their due process rights under the law, state personnel rules and, if applicable, collective bargaining agreements.

“What I can tell you is that the state has a duty to investigate all allegations of wrongdoing that come to our attention,” McCabe said. “There are certain factors we know can protract the length and complexity of investigations, such as when there is a concurrent investigation by law enforcement officials or regulatory agencies.”

NBC 10 I-Team Reporter Parker Gavigan contributed to this report.

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