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Missouri mental health workers racking up overtime

Monday, January 3, 2011 | 12:07 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Employees at the Missouri Department of Mental Health have racked up excessive amounts of overtime — sometimes working weeks of double shifts without days off — because the department lacked policies to limit overtime hours, a state audit found.

The department said Monday that it is adopting policies to cap overtime and is studying whether it would make better financial sense to hire additional staff.

The report by State Auditor Susan Montee says the department paid about $48 million of overtime in the past three years. Much of that went to employees at facilities that provide care to clients 24 hours a day, such as habilitation centers for the developmentally disabled or the state mental health hospital.

In 2009, the audit found that 40 employees at state habilitation centers received overtime payments that exceeded their regular paychecks. During a two-and-a-half year period beginning in January 2008, there were 527 employees whose overtime pay was 50 percent or more of their regular salary, the audit said. Most of those employees worked at one of four facilities — the Marshall Habilitation Center, Bellefontaine Habilitation Center, St. Louis Developmental Disabilities Treatment Center or the Fulton State Hospital.

Though it did not identify employees by name, the audit pointed out several cases of particularly large overtime loads.

One employee at the Marshall Habilitation Center was paid almost $99,000 for 6,075 hours of overtime during a two-year period — more than double the person's regular salary of about $45,000 during that time. October 2009 time records indicate the employee worked 30 straight days, with most of those being double shifts of 16 hours a day, resulting in a total of 266 hours of overtime that month.

Another employee at the Marshal Habilitation Center — who accrued overtime by working a second, part-time job at the facility and volunteering for double shifts — was reprimanded in February 2007 for sleeping while on duty. The employee worked 172 hours of overtime that month.

An employee at the Bellefontaine Habilitation Center worked 3,561 hours of overtime in 2008 and 2009, averaging 148 hours per month. Time records from November 2009 show the employee worked every day of the month, and was on the job for 14 hours on all but three of those days.

Most of the overtime worked at the two habilitation centers was voluntary. But the audit said excessive overtime could jeopardize the health and safety of both clients and employees by putting them at greater risk of medical errors, accidents, injuries and poor performance.

At the time of the audit, the department had not performed an analysis to determine whether hiring additional employees would be cheaper than paying significant amounts of overtime to existing staff. That analysis now is being conducted, said department spokesman Bob Bax.

The department is challenged to recruit — and keep — employees because of relatively low wages paid by the state. The starting salary for care staff at habilitation centers and psychiatric hospitals is $20,136 annually, and about 38 percent leave the job within their first six months, Bax said.

In response to the audit, the department's Division of Developmental Disabilities implemented a policy in December to limit overtime hours by habilitation center staff to 24 hours per two-week pay period unless approved by a supervisor. The Division of Comprehensive Psychiatric Services is developing a similar policy, Bax said.

The audit also cited Gov. Jay Nixon's administration for shifting part of its office costs to the Department of Mental Health and other agencies.

Starting in 2009, the governor's office asked the mental health agency to fund a portion of the salaries of at least three governor's office staff and to help pay for some of Nixon's airplane flights, the audit said.

"It does not appear appropriate for state agencies to bear the cost of such flights that provide no clear benefit to the applicable agencies. These funding practices distort the actual costs of operating the DMH and the governor's office," the audit said.

Nixon has defended the billing practice for his flights — which was first reported by The Associated Press in 2009 — because he is engaging in state business that touches on the policy area of a particular agency or benefits the state in general. In some cases, the costs of Nixon's flights are billed to a particular agency; in other cases, they are split among numerous agencies.

 


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