As Connecticut state leaders sweat a $250 million budget gap, 100 people in one job classification in a division of one state department have racked up $4 million in overtime in 2014 and there are accusations surfacing that some of these state employees made this overtime by sleeping on the job.
Whistleblower Laurie Bernier is one of more than a half dozen people who have worked at the Whiting Forensic Division who told this to the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters. When Bernier shared the sleeping allegations with administrators, she got disciplined. Whiting will not comment, calling it a personnel matter.
“I told everyone that I was going to do this, that I was not going to stop that I was not going to be intimidated, because I had to sleep at night with myself....and I wasn't going to hear that so and so left on a gurney," Bernier said.
Bernier works overnights as a forensic treatment specialist, or FTS, at Whiting’s maximum security unit on the Connecticut Valley Hospital campus in Middletown. Many patients are people arrested for murder, rape and other violent crimes whom judges send to Whiting, ruled not guilty by reason of insanity. Bernier is out on workers' comp now for a second surgery on her fractured wrist after getting knocked over by a patient.
Bernier explains “It's dangerous on many levels. You're dealing with people that have already committed very serious, very, not maybe, this could happen, these crimes have already been committed.”
Forensic treatment specialists have to watch many patients 24/7, sometimes at arms’ length because they are a danger to themselves or others. This complex patient care creates a need for round the clock staffing and with staff shortages there are a lot of overtime shifts they can make themselves available for, including something called mandatory overtime shifts that must be covered where they get paid double. Bernier says some co-workers hoard these shifts, then sleep some of the time so they can log the long hours. She says a half dozen sleep regularly on shifts, a dozen more do it less frequently.
“You talk about a 40-hour work week, we're talking about a 40-hour weekend," she said.
Six of Bernier’s current and former co-workers have told the Troubleshooters the same thing. One said, “The sleeping problem is making it not safe. It was a virus, now it's a cancer.”
Another said, ”I'm looking at it as a taxpayer and it's shameful. It's darn shameful."
State data over three years indicates that out of 100 forensic treatment specialists at Whiting, a growing number have far surpassed or even doubled their $56,000 base pay with overtime. A quarter of them did in 2014. One almost tripled his $63,000 base pay and took home almost a quarter million dollars.
John D’Eramo, interim director of the Whiting forensic division told the Troubleshooters, We're assuring that the building is being safe, and that good care is being provided...That's always what has to come first.”
Bernier and some of her co-workers though say it’s hard to keep the building safe for patients and staff when forensic treatment specialists logging these long hours must sleep to make it happen. “I've been on the floor with two other women holding a male patient yelling for help, and the person can't hear you…they're sleeping!”
D’Eramo refutes Bernier’s claims…”I'm not aware of people sleeping on the job. Again, our primary focus is on the quality of patient care.”
The union that represents forensic treatment specialists did not address sleeping allegations, but did discuss long hours they log, saying in part "in 2013 and 2014 due to hiring freezes imposed by the state and gaps in scheduling employees had to work a high number of extended shifts…it is important that we do not blame workers…for staffing issues beyond their control."
Both the union and Whiting say the facility has begun an overtime reduction program by hiring more staff and that double time, mandatory overtime has already dropped.
“We're recruiting and currently hiring some forensic treatment specialists and registered nurses,"
That said, the Troubleshooters obtained three recent signup sheets for overtime at Whiting for this October and November. It appears numerous overtime shifts, at least at time and a half, remain available. The Troubleshooters will let you know if the overtime figures do go down at Whiting, and if more allegations of sleeping on the job surface. Staffers we have spoken with believe the alleged sleeping constitutes both payroll and pension fraud. The state Comptroller’s office confirms that mandatory overtime is used in state pension formulas.