Oklahoma employees union to sue Health Department over layoffs

Oklahoma City — On Dec. 8, Lana Shaffer got the message to pack up her desk at the Harper County Health Department and not come back.

After 16 years of service, Shaffer was told the Oklahoma State Department of Health didn’t have the funds to pay her and most of her colleagues in the partner engagement office, which worked with communities to get grants and other help for their health-improvement projects.

To Shaffer, it was galling for multiple reasons: because the central office in Oklahoma City escaped with a small percentage of the layoffs; because employees with long careers and admirable track records had to leave suddenly; and because, when it became clear the layoffs weren’t necessary, no one tried to make amends for those who lost their jobs.

“There’s a lot of good people that have given a lot that lost their jobs,” she said. “They supported the Health Department, and I don’t know that the Health Department supported them back.”

The union representing state employees announced Tuesday that it will sue the Oklahoma State Department of Health for $3 million to compensate nearly 200 employees who were laid off, but its head said he hopes the case doesn’t get to court.

Sterling Zearley, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, said state agencies can lay off staff if they follow a defined procedure, but in the Health Department’s case, the rationale for cutting jobs was based on “false pretenses.”

The Health Department had pursued layoffs late last year after then-Commissioner Terry Cline announced the department faced a $30 million budget shortfall. The department laid off about 30 people in December and another 161 in March, to try to balance the budget.

A grand jury report released in May found the shortfall had never existed. The department’s finances had gotten so complicated that almost no one knew how much cash it had available. While the department could have decided to reduce its staff for other reasons, it didn’t need to do so to avoid defaulting on its bills, according to Oklahoma Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones and Attorney General Mike Hunter.

“That prompted us to say, ‘Then you illegally terminated those employees because you didn’t need to do that,’” Zearley said.

Some employees hired back

The union’s attorneys sent a letter to the Health Department and the Office of Management and Enterprise Services on Sept. 28, notifying the agencies that it intended to sue. The state has 90 days to respond before the union will file its lawsuit, Zearley said. If the union wins, any money would be divided up among the laid-off employees based on a formula to determine who suffered the most damage, he said.

Zearley said the union had been in talks with the Health Department about issuing a “recall” to laid-off employees, which would allow them to return to their old jobs or an equivalent job. The union also wanted the department to allow employees who came back to keep their severance pay, instead of having to pay back part of it.

Tony Sellars, spokesman for the Health Department, said the agency has been in talks with the union, but “legal and financial” questions remain. The department has hired 13 people for positions around the state, and 51 employees are still on the list of those to contact as jobs open up, he said. The rest didn’t respond or opted out.

The department has hired back some employees since May, but most didn’t return to the same jobs they left. Interim Commissioner Tom Bates expressed regret for the layoffs after the grand jury released its conclusions, and said the department had gotten rid of too many people.

Some clinics have had to cut back services because of a lack of workers, though not all of the departures were due to layoffs. State rules for layoffs prevents the department from hiring back employees for the jobs it eliminated, however, Sellars said.

“We regret the impact that the (layoff) had on our former employees,” he said in a written statement. “We feel the strain on our service delivery around the state, primarily in county health departments, from this forced departure and have tried to expedite the recall process within the boundaries of current law.”

Shaffer, who was laid off in December, found work as CEO of the Harper County Community Hospital, allowing her to stay in her hometown and her field. Others haven’t been so fortunate, and that’s been costly both to people who can’t find new jobs and to communities that don’t have someone to turn to for health care, she said.

“The rural areas struggle,” she said. “It’s a fight to keep the services you have.”

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