Employees at the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute, along with other State Department of Health workers, were expecting a little extra cash in their paychecks last Friday, as the department told them in June that it would be paying out their accrued comp time at the end of the fiscal year.
But instead of the extra cash, they received a memo from Health Secretary Retta Ward four days before the money was supposed to hit their checks informing them that the Health Department had reconsidered and decided not to move forward with the comp time payouts after all.
The reason for the department’s decision is murky.
Ward informed employees in a July 8 memo that the state needed the money to fight wildfires. But Patrick Gutierrez, president of the union that represents Behavioral Health Institute employees, told the Optic last week that the comp time payouts were axed because they would have been a violation of the union contract.
Gutierrez said some employees prefer to use their comp time rather than be paid for it, but the health secretary’s initial plan was to pay out all comp time.
“For the most part, DOH worked with us, and they were able to see the writing on the wall that they would be in violation,” Gutierrez said.
Asked about the discrepancy, Health Department spokesman Kenny Vigil issued the following statement: The decision by the Department of Health to reconsider paying out compensatory time was primarily a fiscal one that prioritizes the needs of the state as a whole, rather than an individual agency or individual employees. Paying out all compensatory time of all DOH employees would have cost approximately $1.54 million, a significant amount of money that could fund two $750,000 executive orders to the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to fight wildfires statewide.
To give you some context, since June 2013, the state has already taken $13 million from reserves to spend on wildfires and other emergencies statewide.
Vigil goes on to add that the issue of compensatory time balances also affects other state agencies.
“DOH’s decision to reconsider paying out compensatory time also allows the state to develop a coordinated approach,” he said. “That approach will ensure consistency across state agencies, comply with all applicable policies and union contracts and properly prioritize the state’s needs. The Department of Finance and Administration and State Personnel Office will be spearheading that coordinated effort.”
Reducing budget liability
In her original memo to Health Department employees, Ward said her department would be paying out accrued comp time to all employees at the end of the 2013 fiscal year, which was June 30. She noted that employees would see the money in their July 12 paychecks.
“The Department is paying out comp time balances in order to reduce the Department’s future budget liability,” she wrote. “All categories of compensatory time will be paid out with the exception of Administrative Comp Time.”
Ward noted that employees could only accrue up to 240 hours of comp time in all categories combined.
Ward issued a second memo dated July 8 informing employees about the decision not to pay out comp time after all.
“It has since become apparent that the State faces a more pressing and immediate need: namely, providing resources for wildfires, flooding in burned areas, and other emergencies. The money that would have been paid out for accrued Compensatory Time will instead revert to the State’s reserves, which are the source of funds for wildfire and other emergencies.... We regret any inconvenience this may cause.”
Gutierrez said it was actually one of his union members who raised a concern that the payouts would be a violation of the union contract. And he said he hasn’t heard complaints from his union members about the decision not to pay out the comp time.
“There is good and bad,” Gutierrez said. “Some people may have expected it. Others wanted to keep the time.”
But he added that the union was prepared to fight any violation of the union contract.
Under the contract, he said, employees have the option of being paid overtime or accruing comp time, unless management employees workers that only comp time is available.
“When only comp time is offered, the employee may refuse the overtime assignment without penalty,” he said.
“We work in a 24 hour facility. That’s the nature of our work. We’re not always able to take time off. Ultimately, we’re here for our clients.