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State employee bonuses jump (story, database)

Analysis: One-time payments triple from 2012 in wake of collective bargaining changes

Sep. 21, 2013
 
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2013 lump sum bonuses

Bonuses through the end of July, by department:
Health Services: $2.3M (average $2,500/person)
Transportation: $1.5M ($3,163/person)
Natural Resources: $1.1M ($2,572/person)
Corrections: $985,000 ($750/person)
District Attorneys: $502,000 ($1,785/person)
Source: Wisconsin Department of Administration

More

More state employees are cashing in on bonuses this year, as lump sum awards have nearly tripled the 2012 total midway through the year,a Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team analysis shows.

The bonuses — part of a new program called discretionary merit compensation — are given as either lump sums or hourly rate increases. The volume of rate increases is on par with 2012, but the one-time bonuses jumped from $3.5 million in all of 2012 to $9.2 million through the end of July this year, according to data obtained through a public records request from the state Department of Administration.

About one in seven eligible state employees has received a lump sum or hourly rate bonus so far this year, compared to one in 14 last year. Many state agencies were still developing administrative procedures for the bonuses last year, so 2013 will be the first full year under the new system.

The bonuses vary widely by department. Among the eight departments awarding at least 100 lump sum bonuses through July, the Department of Transportation had the highest average at $3,163 per award, while the Department of Corrections was lowest at $750. About 300 state employees have received merit bonuses of $4,000 or more so far this year.

» DATABASE: SEARCH STATE BONUSES

» SPECIAL SECTION: WHAT WE PAY

“Rewarding performance is important to the governor, and discretionary merit compensation is a good tool for managers to use to motivate their employees toward outstanding performance,” Tom Evenson, spokesman for Gov. Scott Walker, said in an email.

But Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, said inconsistent standards and the lack of an appeals process for those passed over make the merit pay program unfair and divisive.

“We get reports from people all the time about, ‘How come I didn’t get a merit and this guy I’m working with got a merit, and we do the same thing and my evaluations are good?’” Beil said. “We have said from the very beginning that the way the state will apply the merit awards will create all sort of inequities in the workplace, and that’s exactly what’s happening.”

State Rep. Peter Barca, one of two Democrats on the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Employee Relations, said given the amount of money involved he will look into the administration of bonuses and would like to see the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau do the same. He said people need to be confident the awards are serving the public good and not a political purpose.

“This needs to be carefully analyzed … because you’re talking about a lot of taxpayer money,” Barca said. “If (employees) don’t perceive that it’s fair, then people are not going to be working toward achieving the goals you want them to.”

State Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, co-chair of the employment relations committee, did not respond to requests for comment.

Employee pay stagnant

The bonus program was implemented in 2012 on the heels of Act 10, the polarizing Walker initiative that largely ended collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin. Act 10 halted the across-the-board raises bargained into union contracts and left the administration to determine pay increases.

The bonuses are among the first pay bumps many employees have seen in years. Most state workers received a 1 percent raise in June, but before that many had not seen a general wage increase since 2008 or 2009, and the vast majority also experienced furloughs, said Department of Administration spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis.

Marquis said each state agency determines the criteria and amounts for employee bonuses, and Evenson, the governor’s spokesman, said Walker has not given any guidance on implementing the program.

Beil said one supervisor announced there would be no merit raises because she didn’t want to pick and choose, and the union also found several notable omissions. Employees passed over for bonuses included a probation and parole agent who was praised for her work in a department-wide email from Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Wall and a corrections officer commended for saving someone’s life, Beil said.

Health department tops list

The bonuses generally are given to reward exemplary work, bring pay in line with employees doing similar jobs or retain employees in high demand.

Since the bonuses began in January 2012, more than 8,000 state employees have received one, and 241 have received two. More than 80,000 people are employed by the state and the UW System.

Six employees received three bonuses, including State Fair Park Executive Director Richard Frenette, whose salary increased from $109,579 to $125,320 via three rate increases. The other five were UW System employees with annual pay of $53,000 or less.

Nearly all bonuses went to classified — or hourly — employees. Of the 365 unclassified employees receiving bonuses since January 2012, the vast majority were assistant or deputy district attorneys.

The Department of Health Services spent the most on bonuses this year — $2.3 million — by awarding 902 bonuses of $2,500 on May 19. Corrections has awarded the most bonuses, handing out 1,313 awards of $750 the same day.

Neither agency awarded any bonuses in 2012.

DHS spokeswoman Stephanie Smiley said the agency put out a call for nominations in March encouraging supervisors and staffers to nominate employees who “consistently go above and beyond.” Employees could also nominate themselves. Nominations were then passed up the chain of command for approval.

The agency’s 2013 bonuses were based only on merit, as the department “does not currently have the ability to measure all DHS staff in key competencies,” Smiley said in an email. DHS Secretary Kitty Rhoades decides when to consider bonuses and whether to use lump sums or rate increases.

Lump sum bonuses favored

DHS and DOC aren’t alone in opting for one-time payments this time around.

Last year state agencies used the two bonuses in similar numbers, approving 1,556 lump sums and 1,212 base pay increases. But through July, the lump sum bonuses have been used five times as often, outnumbering rate increases 4,787 to 940.

The Department of Workforce Development has spent the most on pay increases so far this year, awarding 128 increases averaging $1.68 per hour. Agency spokesman John Dipko said the bonuses address merit, pay equity and employee retention, and have been a factor in reducing turnover.

“These employees are among our most exceptional performers who have talents, abilities and specialized skills … that are very difficult to replace often if those employees leave,” Dipko said.

The bonuses were paid for through existing human resources budgets and totaled less than 1 percent of the agency’s total salary cost.

Statewide, the average rate increase is down slightly so far this year, from $1.85 in 2012 to $1.47 so far in 2013. If all employees receiving rate increases worked full time, the 2012 raises would total $4.7 million annually, while the raises so far in 2013 would total $2.9 million.

The size of the average lump sum bonus is also down slightly, from $2,277 to $1,921.

UW bonuses go to non-academic staff

The UW System dominated the list of bonuses in 2012, handing out 86 percent of all bonuses throughout state government. The UW System is offering bonuses at a similar rate this year — 1,212 through July, compared to 2,370 in all of 2012 — but the jump in bonuses elsewhere means the system is responsible for only 21 percent of the bonuses so far in 2013.

But faculty and academic staffers are not eligible for the bonuses, which have gone to employees such as custodians and program assistants. The largest lump sum bonuses awarded so far went to University of Wisconsin-Madison police detectives, with eight receiving bonuses of $6,922 each.

Select UW-Madison academic staffers received pay increases through a salary increase program last summer, the critical compensation fund. But that approach, like discretionary merit compensation, addressed only a fraction of the salary concerns, said Aaron Crandall, president of the American Federation of Teachers Local 223, which represents faculty and academic staff at UW-Madison.

“In general I think myself and many others here would like something more across the board as opposed to piecemeal,” he said.

— Eric Litke: 920-453-5119, or elitke@gannett.com; on Twitter: @ericlitke

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