State agency shells out overtime dollars one day after mandatory furlough

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX -- Just one day after state employees were ordered to take a furlough day -- a supposedly money-saving move -- the Department of Economic Security brought some of its staffers in on overtime to catch up on the backlog of work.

The DES said it is required by federal law to process welfare requests -- applications for medical assistance and food stamps -- in a timely manner. If the agency does not do that and misses federally mandated deadlines, it can be fined.

Statistics shows the number of requests the agency handles has gone up significantly in the past few years, even doubling in some cases.

While the agency has not said how many people worked overtime or how much was paid, DES said the move was necessary to avoid those federal fines.

The furlough day was Aug. 20. The workers were called in the next day, a Saturday.

Steve Meissner, a DES spokesman, said despite the overtime, the agency is meeting its budget goals.

According to Rep. John Kavanagh (R., Fountain Hills), authorizing overtime after a furlough day is "nonsensical." He said it appears as though the mandatory furlough days are not working as intended.

Sen. Paula Aboud (D., Tucson) said the situation illustrates that forcing an across-the-board furlough is not necessarily a good solution to save money.

Other lawmakers agree that there needs to be some flexibility in the furlough policy.

As part of the state budget, the Legislature requires more than 29,000 state employees to take six unpaid days off work this year and another six next year. While there are exceptions for a very few agencies, most of the state's government is affected by that directive.

The required furlough days are scheduled to save as much as possible on operating expenses. Most of them have resulted in three-day weekends during the summer, when it costs the most to cool buildings.