Audit: Utah Department of Workforce Services employees lack trust in management

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 19 2013 3:25 p.m. MST

People sit in the lobby at the Department of Workforce Services Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013, in Salt Lake City. Large-scale management changes in the Utah DWS amid record demand for public assistance while coping with a recession-related budget crunch were "likely ill-advised," a new legislative audit states.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Seventy-four percent of Utah Department of Workforce Services employees interviewed by legislative auditors said they lack trust in the department's management or management systems, a new audit states.

"These concerns included favoritism, inconsistency, retaliation, discrimination and expressions that employees are expendable," a performance audit of the department's work environment stated.

State lawmakers requested an audit of the department after dozens of current and former DWS employees approached them with concerns. "Specifically, the audit requestors expressed concerns that 'the unintended consequences of tighter budgets is a less hospitable workplace that may well be damaging employee morale and productivity,'" auditors wrote.

The 93-page audit was released Tuesday.

Auditors interviewed 72 current or former DWS employees who had complained to legislators, though there were more who had spoken to lawmakers about working conditions, according to the audit.

The Legislative Auditor General's Office also interviewed a random sample of 100 current DWS employees regarding concerns raised by the so-called complainants.

"The complainants and random interviewees expressed concerns at similar rates," the audit says.

The audit paints a picture of a department dealing with mounting pressures — new technology, implementing efficiency measures such as a pay for performance incentive program, and attempting to serve a sharply rising number of people seeking public assistance during the economic downturn, which pinched the state budget. At the same time, state lawmakers were considering privatizing a portion of the department's functions.

"According to one former lawmaker, the DWS director at the time was tireless in working with legislators and the agency to find ways to avoid privatization and the layoffs that would likely follow," auditors wrote.

Some of the changes implemented at the time included a new case management system, an online client portal, a pay for performance incentive program, and creation of the Eligibility Services Division.

The compounding changes "contributed to significant, negative employee responses," auditors wrote.

While DWS management attempted to alleviate the negative impacts of the compounding changes, "the number, extent and frequency of changes were likely ill-advised," auditors wrote.

Jon Pierpont, executive director of DWS, in an 11-page response to the audit, said systemic and program changes occurred in an atmosphere outside "normal operating conditions."

"The Great Recession brought about a unique set of challenges for our agency, adding an additional set of pressures behind the need to change," Pierpont's response states. "We realize that implementing concurrent or overlapping initiatives can create situations requiring staff's increased ability to adapt."

DWS workers verify eligibility for government assistance programs such as Medicaid and food stamps. They also administer public assistance programs and unemployment benefits, help Utahns find work and employers find employees, assist refugees and administer public housing funding.

Based on employee interviews, the audit was largely confined to issues regarding the Eligibility Services Division.

Rapid organizational changes hindered the implementation of the pay for performance incentive program. Auditors found the program did not recognize the collaborative nature of the Eligibility Services Division and it overcompensated supervisors and managers. Moreover, managers cannot demonstrate the program results in greater efficiencies, auditors wrote.

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