The State Worker

California lawmakers: State-employee transfer scam a ‘serious issue,’ deserves legislative action

Senate budget leaders from both sides of the political aisle said Monday they’re concerned by The Sacramento Bee’s report that departments have illegally transferred state workers to keep vacant positions on the books – and to hang on to the tens of millions of dollars budgeted for the unfilled jobs each year.

“It’s a serious issue,” said Sen. Mark Leno, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee. He said the upper house “will work with the (Brown) administration on it.”

Sen. Jim Nielsen, the committee’s Republican vice-chairman, said the transfer schemes illustrate the lengths to which the bureaucracy protects bloat, calling it a “chess game that’s obviously gone on for years.”

He doubted, however, that the Democrat-dominated Legislature would do anything about it.

“There doesn’t seem to be the resolve,” Nielsen said.

The Bee investigation published over the weekend revealed for the first time the statewide scope of an illegal scheme departments use to move state workers in and out of vacant positions, with some “transfers” lasting just a few days or weeks. The transactions bypass a law that abolishes slots that go unfilled six consecutive months. That same law prohibits using employee transfers to keep positions from being eliminated.

Employees who are moved around aren’t breaking the law, and in fact often don’t even know they’ve been “transferred.”

The position vacancy law allows for more than a dozen exemptions, such as jobs unfilled due to a hiring freeze, hard-to-fill positions or those that directly serve public health or safety. Still, the fiscal 2010-11 through fiscal 2012-13 data analyzed by The Bee show that departments continue to play the employee shell game in violation of the law. By the most conservative estimate, the positions with three or more transfers in a given year had average salaries of more than $80 million.

Departments could keep that money to legally pay operating expenses such as rent, office equipment or cashing out employee leave.

After the Bee shared some of results of its data analysis with the Brown administration, state Human Resources Acting Director Richard Gillihan issued a memo reminding personnel managers about the vacancy law and announcing a “targeted audit” of illegal transfers.

Last week, Government Operations Secretary Marybel Batjer sent a letter to Leno, Nielsen and other state budget officials that questioned the law’s effectiveness while at the same time committing the Brown administration to complying with it.

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