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Questions Raised Over Number of Employees at Labor

Aug. 18, 2005 — The Labor Department is under-reporting the number of its employees and using temporary employment status to further muddy the waters about how many people are actually on the payroll.
The Department is also using miscellaneous disbursement vouchers as a form of payment — a practice that officials say is an inappropriate use of MDVs. Furthermore, it appears that the department is also collecting from both federal grants and the general fund to pay employees.
Individuals hired on a temporary basis can be employed by a government agency for no more than a year before they have to be made a permanent, or classified, employee — or before they have to be released from their jobs. "A permanent or classified status is preferable to a temporary employment status because it comes under the protection of the union," said one Labor Department employee, who was reluctant to speak for attribution. "Without permanent status, temporary employees cannot receive any assurance that they will remain in their positions for an extended period of time."
Despite statements made to the contrary by Labor Commissioner Cecil R. Benjamin at Senate budget hearings last week, some employees within the department have served under temporary status for up to four years. According to Personnel Department head Kevin Rodriguez, this is allowed because of a "special provision" within the V.I. Code that extends the amount of time for an employee to serve in a temporary capacity.
However, high-ranking officials in the Office of Collective Bargaining said there is no such provision. "Title 3, chapter 25, section 526 specifically states that the duration under which an employee can retain temporary status is one year. After that, they must either be employed permanently by that department, or be fired," said one source who spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Sources within the Labor Department say this is definitely not the practice. "I've been here going on four years now, and I'm still classified as a temporary government employee. Sometimes I get a bit worried about this arrangement because I could be fired at any time, and there's nothing I can really say about it. I'm not permanent, I don't belong to a union," one source said.
This individual and two others within the department would not disclose their names and positions out of fear of losing their jobs. In fact, all employees initially interviewed by the Source were willing to go on the record until a call was placed to the Personnel Division requesting information about temporary employment. After that, employees refused to have their names given.
Sources at Labor also said that some temporary employees have not gone through the Personnel Department to be put on the payroll, but have instead been paid through miscellaneous disbursement vouchers. While Rodriguez said the V.I. Government does not engage in or encourage this activity, another source said this is common practice.
Information given to the Legislature's Post Audit division by Benjamin also refutes his statement that there are 47 temporary employees within Labor: Post Audit documents say there are only 28. However, at least three people in Labor have told the Source that there are substantially more than that, and that temps are being brought in without anyone knowing. Subsequently, sources said that Benjamin is unaware of exactly how many individuals are serving under temporary status, or how many people are on Labor's payroll.
While it is not clear why Labor is hiring so many individuals, it is known that some of these temporary employees do not receive paychecks for months at a time during the fiscal year. At least one source said the temps are doing the work of the more highly paid staff — those who are collecting a paycheck and benefits without contributing much to the department.
Another murky area is the funding to pay some of these employees. A review of documents relative to these funding sources indicate that money is being taken both from federal grants and the general fund to cover the expenses. In fact, documents indicate that federal grant money is also being used to fund many other positions as well, while general fund money — under the line item budget heading "Other Services and Charges"— is utilized to bring in more temporary employees. One source said that both sets of funds are also not being used for approved purposes, such as inflating the salaries of higher paid Labor officials.
There is an Agriculture and Labor Committee meeting scheduled for 10 a.m. at the Legislative conference Room on St. Croix on Friday. It's anybody's guess if any of these questionable practices will be addressed.

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