The Minnesota Department of Human Services has spent $59 million on overtime pay in the past three years as the state’s largest agency struggled to maintain adequate staffing at state psychiatric hospitals.

Overtime expenditures at the department have surged nearly 20 percent in the past three years and now far exceed those at other large state agencies, according to a report last month by the Office of the Legislative Auditor.

All told, employees racked up 1.16 million hours of overtime at the agency, which oversees care for the state’s most vulnerable populations, between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2016.

One employee, a security counselor at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter, has worked 8,129 hours of overtime since 2013, collecting $294,493 in extra pay. Another security counselor there made $166,778 in overtime pay over the same period.

And a mental health program assistant at Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center, the state’s second-largest psychiatric facility, collected $135,513 in overtime pay, the auditor found.

The auditor found that the agency had adequate internal controls to ensure that employees were paid accurately for authorized overtime worked.

Yet the large and rising outlay has raised a question about whether the department is doing enough to contain costs and recruit staff.

“There are challenges to filling some of these very demanding positions. But still, what effort is management making to reduce that amount of overtime?” Cecile Ferkul, deputy legislative auditor, asked in an interview.

The large overtime costs underscore the challenges the state faces in recruiting and retaining staff at nearly 200 state-operated facilities across Minnesota that provide mostly 24-hour care for vulnerable populations, including people with developmental disabilities, chemical addictions and mental illnesses.

State officials said a combination of staff vacancies and more patients requiring one-on-one staffing has contributed to the increases. In addition, a 2013 increase in staff salaries made overtime more expensive.

Another factor was a surge in workplace violence at Minnesota’s two largest mental hospitals — the Minnesota Security Hospital and the Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center. In 2013, they saw an influx of more violent patients after a new law took effect requiring state psychiatric facilities to admit more patients held in county jails. Hospital and union officials said the unsafe working environment contributed to higher staff turnover, forcing employees to work extra shifts to prevent lapses in care.

This spring, Gov. Mark Dayton proposed $177.3 million to improve staffing, patient care and safety at state-run psychiatric facilities. The package would have added more than 300 employees at the Minnesota Security Hospital. The Legislature did not approve much of the package, leaving the hospital dramatically understaffed compared to similar facilities in other states.

“DHS sought additional resources to fully fund our hospitals last session,” Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper said in a statement. “The Legislature did not fully fund these requests.”

Sleeping in cars

DFL Sen. Kathy Sheran, chair of the Health, Human Services and Housing Committee, said the overtime surge reflects years of underfunding at state-operated facilities.

“Beyond costing taxpayers money,” she said, “it means people don’t get the rest they need and they don’t keep themselves in the state of mind they need to be in to work with this population.”

As the audit report shows, a single employee can rack up substantial amounts of overtime. Abu Kamara, the security counselor at Minnesota Security Hospital, worked an average of 51.5 hours of overtime each week over the past three fiscal years. In the 2016 fiscal year, Kamara collected $117,791 in overtime pay, which was more than twice his annual base salary, the state auditor found.

Late last year, Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center was so understaffed that some nurses were sleeping in their cars in the hospital’s parking lot while working back-to-back-shifts, union officials said.

The state has since reduced overtime at Anoka Metro by filling vacancies and managing the patient population. Last month, overtime at the facility accounted for less than 3 percent of all hours worked, down from 12 percent in December 2015, state officials said.

“This is a job where you need to be well rested,” said Jennifer Munt, a spokeswoman for AFSCME Council 5, which represents licensed practical nurses at Anoka Metro. “The patient can turn on you in a second, and your responses need to be sharp, and they aren’t if you haven’t slept.”

 

Twitter: @chrisserres