SALT LAKE CITY — Seventy-four percent of Utah Department of Workforce Services employees interviewed by legislative auditors said they lack trust in the department's management or management systems, a new audit states.
"These concerns included favoritism, inconsistency, retaliation, discrimination and expressions that employees are expendable," a performance audit of the department's work environment stated.
State lawmakers requested an audit of the department after dozens of current and former DWS employees approached them with concerns. "Specifically, the audit requestors expressed concerns that 'the unintended consequences of tighter budgets is a less hospitable workplace that may well be damaging employee morale and productivity,'" auditors wrote.
The 93-page audit was released Tuesday.
Auditors interviewed 72 current or former DWS employees who had complained to legislators, though there were more who had spoken to lawmakers about working conditions, according to the audit.
The Legislative Auditor General's Office also interviewed a random sample of 100 current DWS employees regarding concerns raised by the so-called complainants.
"The complainants and random interviewees expressed concerns at similar rates," the audit says.
The audit paints a picture of a department dealing with mounting pressures — new technology, implementing efficiency measures such as a pay for performance incentive program, and attempting to serve a sharply rising number of people seeking public assistance during the economic downturn, which pinched the state budget. At the same time, state lawmakers were considering privatizing a portion of the department's functions.
"According to one former lawmaker, the DWS director at the time was tireless in working with legislators and the agency to find ways to avoid privatization and the layoffs that would likely follow," auditors wrote.
Some of the changes implemented at the time included a new case management system, an online client portal, a pay for performance incentive program, and creation of the Eligibility Services Division.
The compounding changes "contributed to significant, negative employee responses," auditors wrote.
While DWS management attempted to alleviate the negative impacts of the compounding changes, "the number, extent and frequency of changes were likely ill-advised," auditors wrote.
Jon Pierpont, executive director of DWS, in an 11-page response to the audit, said systemic and program changes occurred in an atmosphere outside "normal operating conditions."
"The Great Recession brought about a unique set of challenges for our agency, adding an additional set of pressures behind the need to change," Pierpont's response states. "We realize that implementing concurrent or overlapping initiatives can create situations requiring staff's increased ability to adapt."
DWS workers verify eligibility for government assistance programs such as Medicaid and food stamps. They also administer public assistance programs and unemployment benefits, help Utahns find work and employers find employees, assist refugees and administer public housing funding.
Based on employee interviews, the audit was largely confined to issues regarding the Eligibility Services Division.
Rapid organizational changes hindered the implementation of the pay for performance incentive program. Auditors found the program did not recognize the collaborative nature of the Eligibility Services Division and it overcompensated supervisors and managers. Moreover, managers cannot demonstrate the program results in greater efficiencies, auditors wrote.
Over time, cash incentives for "determinations" — decisions whether to issue or deny benefits — dropped from $25 to $5.
"These incentive reductions are detrimental to the morale of high-performing employees, who receive a reduction in total compensation as management addresses the budget constraints for the program," the audit states.
While the department recognizes its tools to measure employee success "always have room for improvement, we believe that recent initiatives are moving us in the right direction," Pierpont responded.
Incentive amounts dropped because more employees participated in the program and the program had limited funds. "Employees who see a change in their incentive amount are still receiving additional compensation on top of salary based on their increases productivity," he wrote.
Pierpont added that leadership is an essential factor in helping eligibility teams work harmoniously and efficiently.
"Since we estimate it costs approximately $50,000 to fully train an eligibility specialist, our ultimate goal is to ensure they become fully functioning and successful (Eligibility Services Division) employees. Effective management is an integral part in achieving that goal," he wrote.
Many managers have developed initiatives to reward employees such as recognition luncheons, division awards, accuracy celebrations and service projects. Some managers and supervisors have spent their own money on these initiatives, Pierpont wrote.
"In addition, opportunities such as flex schedules, telecommuting and tuition reimbursement contribute to a healthy environment," he added.
Auditors wrote that DWS should reconsider its zero tolerance policy on access to DWS databases. The policy requires immediate termination of employees for client data access outside of "legitimate business purposes."
The policy was implemented in 2011 after a DWS employee in 2010 released a list of names of clients who purportedly were unauthorized to be in the United States. "The List" was given to the news media, law enforcement and the governor's office.
Two employees were terminated and faced criminal prosecutions, though neither served jail time. That drew the ire of Latino community leaders, who said the acts spread fear among Latino-surnamed Americans and unauthorized immigrants whose names were on the list.
After implementing the policy in 2011, 23 DWS employees were issued letters of termination. However, the Utah Public Employees Association intervened, arguing that employees had not been sufficiently trained to understand the policy. The employees ultimately received four-day suspensions. The policy, the audit states, "appears to have been applied inconsistently."
The audit examined six cases in which DWS employees had inappropriately accessed databases between July 2011 and December 2012. Reprimands ranged from dismissal of a probationary employee who inappropriately accessed DWS records to a written reprimand of an employee who disclosed customer information on Facebook.
Legislative auditors noted that zero tolerance policies are rarely used in state agencies, even those in which employees have access to sensitive client information.
Auditors recommended the agency move away from the zero tolerance policy because it "does not allow management flexibility to adjust their actions for mitigating circumstances. Zero tolerance, by definition, means immediate dismissal. In actuality, this policy is difficult to enforce."
Pierpont strongly disagreed with the auditors' recommendation regarding the policy.
“Although we understand the audit’s concern regarding zero tolerance policies, we collect and maintain large databases of highly sensitive, confidential information. We view that as the highest level of public trust and cannot tolerate any violation of that trust," Pierpont wrote.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company