State agency beats mandated pay raise deadline
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The state Department of Health and Human Resources granted pay raises this month to hundreds of staffers who take care of the mentally ill - part of an effort to avoid being held in contempt of court.
DHHR said it granted the raises to employees at two state-run psychiatric hospitals. The department gave the raises to belatedly comply with a 2009 court order.
It is not yet clear how much DHHR is spending on raises or where it will get the money, a department spokeswoman said.
Currently, William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital in Weston and Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital in Huntington are shorthanded and rely on staffers to work long hours, according to court testimony and records.
The state has paid at least $1 million a year in overtime at Bateman and one staffer testified that overworked employees at Sharpe "get a short fuse."
To avoid such conditions, Kanawha County Circuit Judge Duke Bloom told the department three years ago to give hundreds of thousands of dollars in raises to key employees at the hospitals. The goal was to help hire and keep quality staff.
The department gave some raises but had yet to fully obey with the 2009 order in December 2012. That's when a fed-up Bloom ordered DHHR to cut bigger paychecks by Jan. 31 - or else.
Bloom said he would hold the department in contempt of court and fine the department $50 per employee per day. Bloom's threat covers hundreds of state hospital employees - between 280 and 400, according to differing sources. That meant fines of up to $20,000 a day for DHHR, which is the state's largest agency.
Bloom's contempt threat was a dramatic first in the so-called Hartley Case, a 1981 case that remains open and centers on the treatment of the mentally ill.
It seems DHHR has sought to avoid this fate. That's according to the minutes of a meeting last week with DHHR officials, a court-appointed case monitor and Mountain State Justice, a Charleston-based public interest law firm that advocates for better mental health care.
Bateman CEO Vickie Jones, who also helps oversee Sharpe, told the meeting participants that all pay raises are now in effect.
As a result, Jones said the department did not expect to be fined by the court.
DHHR did not immediately know how much the raises would cost or where the money would come from.
"Total costs have not been calculated," DHHR spokeswoman Marsha Dadisman said in an email late last week.
"Funding sources will be determined when the final calculations are made."
Dadisman said DHHR believed it had been in compliance with the 2009 order until recently.
After DHHR's failure to give some of the required 2009 raises came to his attention, Bloom ruled in mid-October 2012 that DHHR must comply with his 2009 order by this month.
But instead of working to make the raises happen after three years of delay, DHHR sought in early December to again delay the pay raises, citing logistical issues.
A Mountain State Justice attorney called DHHR's delays "really offensive."
But DHHR was finally able to comply with the 2009 order after it pushed its staff to make things happen over the holidays.
"The speed of this implementation was due to mandatory staff overtime including holidays," according to minutes of last week's meeting with Jones and others.
John Thompson, a spokesman for the union that represents some public workers at the state-run hospitals, said he was going to continue keeping an eye on DHHR.
"As far as we know, its taken place," Thompson said of the raises. "I'm certainly going to monitor it to make sure they are complying with (the order)."