Twenty Erie County government employees placed on leave for poor conduct – including 11 who were ultimately fired – received $105,000 in paid leave over 18 months, according to an audit by the Erie County Comptroller's Office.
"Obviously, I understand if it's a serious infraction and individuals should not be in and around the Rath Building," said Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw. "But if appropriate, these people should be at work, cleaning garbage, answering phones, anything other than sitting at home and getting paid by the taxpayer."
County administrators said Mychajliw's criticisms apply to a tiny fraction of the county's workforce and that both civil service and union contract rules limit his recommended fixes.
"You're really dealing with – even by his numbers – 11 employees out of 4,500 in Erie County," said Assistant Budget Director Scott Bylewski.
The 20 county employees received their salaries and benefits while they weren't working. Nine eventually returned to work following their successful appeals of discipline. Eleven were terminated. All of them accrued wages, vacation and comp time while on leave, according to the audit.
Mychajliw recommended these changes:
- Assign other work to suspended county employees, on a case-by-case basis, while they wait for the outcomes of their cases.
- Write, revamp and tighten county policies regarding paid leave, with guidelines indicating the specific purpose and use of paid leave time.
Under the current policy, county employees who are fired do not have to repay the county the money they received during their paid leave.
The audit also noted that $147,000 in salary and benefits were paid to 61 employees in 13 departments for “other paid leave” that was not reported accurately or lacked documentation or a clear explanation why these workers received payments.
“Other paid leave” is considered time off for reasons other than sick time, vacation time, workers compensation or any formal request to take time off. Numerous county departments did not even know when and how to exercise discretion when granting other paid leave to employees, according to the audit.
The audit covered a period from January 2016 to June 2017.
Administrators said labor contracts dictate that union workers cannot be put on leave without pay before internal investigations have been completed. Those same contracts also require employees being given five days notice prior to termination.
Personnel Commissioner David A. Palmer said he personally approves all paid leave requests and that many such requests are unrelated to discipline. If a person is believed to have committed a serious enough infraction to warrant possible termination, the county may not want that individual remaining in county service prior to being fired, where they could commit sabotage, he said.
In addition, Mychajliw's recommendation that these employees be given other unrelated work could face civil service opposition since these employees would be asked to do work outside of the scope of their job title, he said.
He agreed, however, that the county should do a better job of documenting past practices and guidelines so all departments are aware of the proper application of paid leave time.
"We agree that we will put a policy in place," Palmer said.