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Management practices at the Department of Workforce Services have eroded employee morale and cut compensation, even as demands on employees increased dramatically during the recent recession, according to a legislative audit released Tuesday.

Auditors focused on the handling of bonuses given to eligibility specialists — those caseworkers who determine what benefits Utahns qualify to receive — and found that they were inconsistently awarded, with supervisors and managers much more likely to benefit than caseworkers.

A random sample of DWS employees found widespread complaints of the bonus program, a mistrust of management, and skyrocketing caseloads.

In a letter responding to the audit, DWS director Jon Pierpont said the department did what it had to do to bolster the compensation of productive employees while under the pressure of a major recession and budget cuts.

"The Great Recession's impact, as well as other pressures, required DWS to seek new, better ways to deliver government services," Pierpont wrote. "We are confident that we made the best of a difficult situation and we will continue to take into account all information that helps us hone our programs."

He noted the department is saving taxpayers $33 million a year while handling significantly more cases with a lower error rate.

The audit said that an 80 percent reduction in the amount of per-case awards meant that, on average, a group of well-performing eligibility specialists saw their monthly compensation drop by $250 a month.

Pierpont countered that, by lowering the amount of the award, more people were able to receive the bonuses without needing extra money for the program.

Meantime, supervisors and managers were nearly four times more likely to receive performance bonuses than eligibility caseworkers. Ninety-three percent of supervisors and managers received a bonus, and they typically received more than twice as much. Eligibility specialists on average received $152 a month, while managers received nearly $400.

The department, however, said that auditors included a significant number of employees who were not participating in the bonus program, since only at-will employees — those who are not part of the state merit system — are eligible for bonuses.

When only eligible employees are counted, eligibility specialists received $400 in bonuses, compared to $480 for supervisors and $500 for managers.

The auditors recommended supervisors not be eligible for the program unless better standards can be developed to show their performance warrants a bonus. Pierpont disagreed with the recommendation, saying the program is designed to motivate staff at all levels and supervisors earn the awards based on the performance of their team of employees.

Pierpont said the manager and supervisor bonuses have been frozen while the department looks at a better way to measure their performance.

Cuts to the program and the arbitrary nature in which they were applied — because the department didn't have good baselines for setting targets for receiving awards — hurt morale in a department already stressed by management changes, budget cuts, caseload increases and disciplinary actions, the auditors wrote.

In the 2008 budget year, the Department of Workforce Services' budget was $90 million. Five years later, it had been slashed to $65 million. During the same period, the number of public assistance cases shot up by 54 percent, with 121,712 people applying for DWS services in 2008 and 187,300 applying for services in 2013.

At the same time, the number of eligibility specialists working at the department was cut by 181, a 10 percent reduction. As a result, In 2008, each eligibility caseworker handled 111 cases; by 2013, the caseload had jumped to 253, an increase of 125 percent.

The department said it has actually shed 260 employees from its eligibility services division.

Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said constituents have complained of long waits and poor service at the department.

"You can tell me the doors are open, but if you're discouraging individuals form coming in and having access, then it's not working. … The people are not getting service," Davis said. "You can pat yourselves on the back and say, 'Yeah, we're getting calls and we're dealing with them.' And I'm hearing from people who are telling me it's half a day to get [their calls] through."

But Senate President Wayne Niederhauser acknowledged the challenges the department managed in the face of budget cuts.

"From my point of view, there seems to have been a lot of success in what's happened," he said. "I kind of wonder where we'd be today if we didn't have that extra $33 million."

Twitter: @RobertGehrke

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