The state Senate unanimously approved a bill early Monday evening that puts limits on home assignments of workers sent home during investigations. Senate Bill 5160 says a home assignment can last up to 15 days and that an agency can extend it in 30-day increments – but all such assignments must be reported to the state human resources officer.
The bill grew out of problems with home assignments that became exceptionally long and cost taxpayers for salaries. A KING-5 television report last year found that since 2006, the state had paid more than 1,000 employees to stay home during investigations, costing $17.2 million for salaries and benefits during the time off. And 50 workers were kept off the job for a year.
Republican Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry of Moses Lake sponsored the measure, which was meant to ensure that workers on administrative assignment to their homes not be forgotten.
Both she and Democratic Sen. Steve Conway of Tacoma both spoke in favor of the bill. Holmquist Newbry told of a woman on home assignment that was paid but felt she didn’t deserve it because she wasn’t doing work.
Conway, who clashes with his Republican counterpart on many labor issues, said the legislation was needed to put into law the executive order that former Gov. Chris Gregoire executive order issued last year. “This is Lean,” he said.
Among changes in law, the bill requires that the state human resources officer make annual reports to the Legislature starting in March 2014 explaining the use of home assignments in the previous year.
A similar bill was heard last month in the House Government Operations Committee but Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, did not bring it up for a vote. That was because Rep. Matthew Manweller, R-Ellensburg, wanted to wait for the Senate version, which he said was better than his own House Bill 1460.
Manweller later explained that his first draft had an unintended consequence of applying to the judiciary and legislative branches, which he had not intended.
During the House hearing, Julie Murray of the governor’s budget office said Gregoire made changes last year aimed at reducing home assignments. Murray said that at last count there were 13 state employees home on assignment and that the Department of Corrections and the State Patrol used home assignment most often during investigations of misconduct.
“We’re going to err on the side of caution and use home assignment when doing that investigation,” Murray testified. But she signaled some support for the bill, saying she thinks the state already has a good practice in place but that “offering some kind of continuity would be a good thing.’’
Murray said one problem in having workers do tasks is when there are fitness-for-duties issues — such as when a person is arrested or no longer able to perform job functions. She suggested changes to the bill to push the issue to a review by an agency’s human resources division and agency director or the head of a board or commission that oversees the agency.
Also during the House hearing, Matt Zuvich of the Washington Federation of State Employees said the union was neutral on the bill. But he said members “kind of like the goal of the bill, which is to expedite the process’’ when workers are being investigated.