Politics & Government

Kentucky to pay social workers $175,000 for unpaid overtime

The state has agreed to pay 140 social workers in Jefferson County more than $175,000 in unpaid overtime as part of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor over federal wage violations. Audrey Tayse Haynes, secretary for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said social workers should start receiving those payments this week.

The violations occurred between March 2010 and March 2012. Haynes said the cabinet has since revamped its management policies and looked at other internal procedures to ensure that workers are being paid for time worked.

"We take these types of complaints seriously," Haynes said.

An internal investigation by the cabinet showed state social workers were pressured to work unpaid overtime to keep up with caseloads and appease supervisors obsessed with statistics.

The cabinet asked its Office of Inspector General to investigate allegations of unpaid overtime after a Jefferson County social worker made the complaint to the Department of Labor in October 2011.

The 26-page Office of Inspector General report — obtained by the Herald-Leader through an open-records request — focused on Jefferson County child protection workers but also surveyed social workers in Central Kentucky, including Fayette County. Haynes asked OIG investigators to look at two other regions to determine whether the unpaid overtime was a statewide problem.

The report found that undocumented overtime was pervasive in Jefferson County, which has the highest number of child abuse investigations in the state, according to the report.

But social workers from other areas of the state also reported working on weekends, taking work home, working through lunch and other breaks so they would not be written up for failing to complete investigations and other casework on time. Workers who consistently fell behind were given improvement plans or were even demoted, social workers said.

The report found that no supervisor explicitly told social workers to work unpaid overtime. But it was often implied, social workers told investigators.

"I don't care what you do, but you gotta get these things done," a supervisor is quoted as telling Jefferson County social workers, according to the report.

Child protection workers told investigators that social work is not an 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. job. Home visits, for example, have to be conducted after 4 p.m. when the child and parents are home. Visiting foster children in foster homes hours away can take time, they said. "Nobody who got out of there at 4:30 p.m. made it as a (child protection) caseworker," one social worker told investigators.

Social workers also repeatedly told investigators that supervisors told them they could not claim overtime unless they had a "finished product" to show for their time — such as a completed child abuse investigation or a closed case.

Teresa James, commissioner for Community Based Services, which includes child protection, said that her department has trained and retrained supervisors on the cabinet's overtime policies. There will also be a separate training with the Department of Labor on the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. The act says that if employees work overtime, they must be paid.

James said that the cabinet has also looked at its internal computer systems and some of its protocols to try to find ways to make data input less time-consuming.

At the same time, James said that workers have to show that the overtime was deserved. That doesn't necessarily mean a finished product. But they have to document why overtime was needed, James said.

"We are responsible for taxpayer dollars," James said.

Haynes said that the standards for closing cases and investigating abuse and neglect are important as the cabinet continues to face scrutiny over its handling of child abuse cases, particularly deaths.

"Everyone is trying to recommit themselves to a more streamlined but improved policy while maintaining our standards," Haynes said.

She said that the cabinet will likely not ask for additional money for overtime in its budget request for the next biennium.

The legislature will begin debating funding in January 2014.

Staffing, however, continues to be a concern. Despite the fact that the cabinet received an additional $21 million in 2012 and 2013 to hire 300 employees, retaining staff is still challenging. About 100 of the 300 employees hired were in child protection.

"We still have a very difficult time recruiting workers," Haynes said. "The pay is still very low. Like all state employees, they have not had pay raises in a very long time. They have some of the most dangerous jobs in the state."