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Counties Assailed Over Paid Time Off

Workers in six counties were paid more than $27.2 million while suspended over the last five years. Many officials say practice is necessary.

August 31, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

California counties pay millions of dollars in wages each year to employees who are not allowed to work because of disciplinary investigations -- a practice that some officials criticize in light of the state's budget crisis.

Workers in six large counties for which data were available -- Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, San Diego, Sacramento and Santa Clara -- were paid more than $27.2 million while suspended from work over the last five years, according to a Times analysis.

In Los Angeles County alone, workers collected $16.6 million over five years while serving what the county calls "ordered absence leave," records show.

A majority of the paid time off went to law enforcement officers. In Los Angeles, 58% of the $5.5 million the county paid to relieved employees last year went to workers in the sheriff or probation departments or district attorney's office. In Sacramento, 70% of the on-leave wages went to law enforcement employees; in Orange County, 63%.

Several law enforcement officials said they continue to pay workers they suspect of wrongdoing because of the so-called Peace Officers Bill of Rights of 1976. That law provides a series of employment protections for the state's peace officers and prohibits law enforcement agencies from disciplining or firing officers without providing them due process hearings.

Others say it is financially prudent to offer paid leave rather than withhold wages and face lawsuits or large disbursements for back pay if employees are cleared to return to work.

"If we don't [pay officers on leave] and the guy gets his job back, it's all subject to paying him back again, and counties hate to pay that big fat paycheck," said Santa Clara County Sheriff's Capt. Pete Rode. "It's sometimes easier and less costly for the county to pay that administrative leave than incur additional liability if it turns out we were wrong."

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Guilt Undecided

Orange County attorney John Barnett, who frequently represents police officers accused of misconduct, said paid administrative leave is justified "because there hasn't been a determination of guilt or innocence."

"Just because you're accused of something, I don't think it should financially decimate you or your family," said Wayne Quint, president of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs. "There are good reasons to put people on administrative leave. Depending on the allegation, there's liability concerns for the department and the officer. Is he going to be able to concentrate on his law enforcement job when he has this allegation pending? If the allegation is true, would you want this guy working at your department? I don't think any of us would."

Still, some critics say paid suspensions often last far longer than necessary.

The Los Angeles County Probation Department suspended 88 workers with pay in 2002, keeping them on ordered-absence leave for an average of nearly six months each -- a cost of $1.89 million to taxpayers, according to county records. The Sheriff's Department paid employees on leave more than $1.2 million, the records show.

Susan Stern, chief deputy of Los Angeles County's human resources department, said there is no countywide policy on how departments should use ordered-absence leave or how long an employee can be paid while home from work. She said the cost figures the county provided to The Times could include employees who were reassigned to other jobs rather than sent home, but she could not say how many.

In other California counties, some law enforcement officers are paid to stay off the job even while awaiting trial on serious charges.

An investigator for the Riverside County district attorney's office was kept on the payroll for eight months while charged with murder, collecting more than $51,000, records show. Investigator Daniel Riter, 56, retired in the middle of his trial this summer and was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

In Santa Clara County, a sheriff's deputy was suspended with pay for a year, collecting more than $65,000, after he was accused of sexually assaulting a volunteer firefighter during a wildfire in 2000. He was convicted of misdemeanor sexual battery and dismissed from the department after the trial.

"That's outrageous, and a prime example of how the public sector is not held to the same competitive pressures as the private sector," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. "If they're receiving taxpayer funds, they should be doing something productive for the taxpayers."

An official in the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department said the case involving former Deputy Glenn Dolfin was extremely unusual.

"It's almost a gift of public funds for bad behavior," said Capt. Rode. "If we have the information, we will make the decision [to discipline] even before the criminal case goes all the way to trial."

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