Paying double? Public on the hook twice as state workers collect incentive some didn’t earn

A pilot worker-training program meant to save the public’s money and speed up state projects has already run into problems that may be costing you double.

They’re called multiskilled-worker programs and are being used in a handful of departments. It’s higher pay for higher-level work, but we’re told some workers are getting the bonus and not doing anything differently.

On top of that, the state still needs the work done, but has to hire outside contractors to do it.

As water pipes burst left and right across Honolulu, years ago the Board of Water Supply faced a clog in the works every time it went to fix them.

“Too many steps led to discovery of and repair of the breaks,” explained Randy Perreira, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association.

So the idea of having workers who knew how to do more was born.

“Employees would be trained in different disciplines, and as they would achieve different training levels and certifications, they could see their compensation levels improve, so it’s a win-win,” Perreira said.

The state liked what it saw at the county agency. There are now 165 people on the state payroll getting the multiskilled worker pay bump, which comes along with detailed prerequisites for classroom, on-the-job, and certification training. It’s all outlined in contracts between the HGEA and UPW unions and a handful of state departments: Hawaii Public Housing Authority, the Department of Transportation, and most recently, the Department of Defense at the Hawaii State Veterans Cemetery in Kaneohe.

View Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) for: Hawaii Public Housing Authority | Hawaii Department of Transportation Landscaping Crews and Highways Division Trade Crews

“The employer would save just by utilizing in-house staff,” Perreira said, “because they have the expertise developed and the training provided to allow for internal completion of a job.”

That’s been the case at the HPHA, where the turnaround time on public-housing fixes has been slashed, getting families in need into vacant homes more quickly. The DOD, newest to the program, reports success getting its team trained and up to speed already. (Click here to view HPHA’s full response, and view the DOD’s full response at the end of this post.)

But staff from another agency, the state Department of Transportation, came forward to Always Investigating to reveal it’s not going as smoothly for them.

“When I first talked about getting training on other equipment, they denied it, and they just pushed it aside and said just do it whatever we tell you,” one worker said.

What happened to the worker’s paycheck?

“I still received incentive pay, without the required training, classroom or on-the-job training,” the worker said. “There are a lot of workers getting the pay. You have people who are general labors in the BC02 pay grade getting a pay grade for a BC10, which would be a heavy equipment operator, yet they’re not even capable of operating the equipment.”

View a breakdown of the DOT’s landscaping crew pay rates here.

DOT said in a statement: “No one can obtain their incentive pay without obtaining or already possessing the required prerequisites within the MOU (memorandum of understanding with each union).” View the DOT’s full response here.

Not yet resolved are the differentials we saw on paychecks for work that staff said didn’t rise to the multiskilled definition, and that they’re still waiting to be trained to be able to do.

Always Investigating asked, who ends up doing the heavy equipment jobs much of the time? The answer: outside contractors.

“For instance, when there was Tropical Storm Darby, they ended up hiring contractors because there weren’t enough state workers that were trained that can operate equipment,” the worker explained.

DOT explained in a statement: “There is so much work (that) hiring private contractors is not doubling up services, it is ensuring all the necessary work is completed. It is not possible for our current workforce to upkeep the system to the level of repair and maintenance that is required by federal and state standards, as well as expectations of the public, without supplementing with contractors. However, MSW allows us to do a lot more than we could previously.”

Lawmakers are concerned about what the staff said about training, pay, and contractor services.

“The skilled worker has not received proper training and as a result of that, they are having to pay contractors to do the work of the skilled worker? That was never the intention of the skilled worker teams,” said Sen. Jill Tokuda, the Senate’s new Labor Committee chairwoman.

Lawmakers are fresh off a legislative session where multiskilled worker teams got lots of money and support.

“That would make me very angry at this particular point to hear that people have not been given the training, that contract costs had been duplicated, and that taxpayer money had been wasted,” Tokuda said.

DOT says it does not use money from the tax General Fund, telling Always Investigating:

“Hawaii Department of Transportation is self-sustaining, meaning it does not use money from the General Fund. Instead money for the Highways Division comes from the State Highway Fund, which is funded by the users of the highway system. This money is generated from fees collected from highway users. There is a fee per gallon of fuel purchased, by how much your vehicle weighs, and for registering your vehicle. If you do not own a vehicle or purchase fuel you will not pay for any of the fees collected for the State Highway Fund, even though you still benefit from the transportation system. Despite generating its own revenue, the department is still dependent on legislative approval.”

The department must still get legislative approval, however, for its spending.

Tokuda, who formerly headed the Ways and Means Committee, has seen the numbers up close, and points out another detriment to the public when the program doesn’t go right: “While we were funding these skilled worker teams, we were also systematically reducing contract costs as well, so we weren’t duplicating the funding sources. The fact that they were paying for contract work alongside these skilled workers teams meant that this department most likely was taking funding from somewhere else to pay these contract costs, and displacing other services.”

She says the program will need a closer look.

“We’re going to hold people accountable for it, because it’s very concerning to hear these kinds of things come forward when we’ve just ended a session where we put more resources toward these types of things,” Tokuda said.

Always Investigating asked of the staff getting more money from this, why complain about it?

“Because it’s morally wrong,” a worker explained. “We’re getting pay for something that we haven’t done, and it’s just a waste of taxpayer money and it’s just not right.”

They say they want to be trained to improve their job skills and prospects, and to be able to work on equipment instead of on the ground or in the trenches.

The worker was speaking on behalf of two UPW skilled-worker units within DOT — landscaping and highway maintenance. UPW did not yet respond to our questions, including who is responsible for the training. Does the manager have to make sure it happens, on paid work-time, or is it up to the employee to go get it independently?

HGEA represents some other multiskilled workers, and its executive director shed light on general best practices. Perreira told us: “Really, it’s incumbent upon the employer to ensure — for their own sake, frankly — that employees are getting the proper training, to make sure that they are following through with the implementation, because then they reap the benefits of the program. If not, then really I guess the employees are at a loss for not getting sufficient training and you’re not going to see the longer term salary savings.”

“Ultimately it falls on the department and management within the department,” Tokuda said, “and from a higher-level standpoint, we look toward DHRD (Department of Human Resources Development) to really be looking at this systematically. Is the skilled worker concept working well? Are there any problems, and if so, what do you do about it? There needs to be multiple levels of accountability.”

DHRD tells Always Investigating it doesn’t track how much or how often training happens, and that workers designated multiskilled can get the pay bump based not just on ability, but availability. (View DHRD’s full response at the end of this post.)

“DHRD does not account for how much or how often this training occurs. The pay adjustment for MSWs is based upon both the employee’s ability and availability to do higher levels and larger varieties of work,” DHRD said in a statement.

It says if a manager has paid staff regardless of training or work level, there’s no payback provision.

With bargaining underway on new union contracts, many of the skilled worker agreements are on the table.

“The MSW programs are temporary and subject to review prior to continuance,” DHRD said in a statement.

Tokuda says a public briefing may be in order.

“It’s clearly something we have to look closer at, and very distressing to hear,” Tokuda said. “DHRD does have an obligation to be working with various departments and entities to make sure these operations are being managed with fidelity, the resources are being used effectively. It is about holding them to task.”

“Certainly it makes sense that the sooner you address any concerns the better,” Perreira said, “because it’s not a short-term program. The responsibility of oversight has to fall with the agency implementing the program. As issues arise, then somewhere in the hierarchy within government, somebody’s got to be empowered to step in.”

We’ll follow up to see what comes of more accountability for these multiskilled-worker programs in general, to continue reaping worker and taxpayer benefits from the programs that are working right, and to make sure you’re not paying twice.

Department of Human Resources Development/Office of Collective Bargaining

How many different departments/divisions does the state have MOUs, and with which unions?

Currently, there are six active MOUs relating to multiskilled workers. Three departments have MOUs with the unions for UPW’s and HGEA’s Units (1) and (2) respectively. The MOUs are between the Hawaii Public Housing Authority (HPHA) and the UPW; HPHA and HGEA; DOT and UPW; DOT and HGEA; the Department of Defense (DOD) and UPW; DOD and HGEA.

What is the OCB’s assessment of how the multiskilled workers programs are going so far? Is it accomplishing its intended results?

Generally, the multiskilled workers (MSW) programs are working well and are accomplishing intended results. As an example, using MSWS, HPHA has decreased its turn-around time for rehabilitating public housing units, from an average of 7 months to 7 days. The MSW programs have served as successful partnerships between the departments and unions in facilitating more efficient work and benefiting our public-sector employees.

Can OCB or DHRD determine how many workers are being paid at these bonus rates?

DHRD notes that the MSW participants have pay adjustments and are compensated for the higher level of work they are doing. There are approximately 64 MSWs across the six MOUs.

If any are receiving the MSW incentive who have not completed the prescribed trainings and/or are not serving in a more skilled capacity, does the program require a payback or deduction of any sort, or would it be considered an error by management at the department’s expense?

MSWs primarily receive on-the-job training. While some training occurs in the classroom, the on-the-job training provides the opportunities for the MSWs to gain knowledge and experience which enables more efficient workflow.

DHRD does not track the training opportunities for MSWs through the departments. Most of the training for MSWs in on-the-job training and DHRD does not account for how much or how often this training occurs. The pay adjustment for MSWs is based upon both the employee’s ability and availability to do higher levels and larger varieties of work.

The MSW performs work as a member of a multi-skilled team, doing work regularly assigned to his or her position, in addition to the work of other team members as they cross-trained. The intent is to not limit MSW team members to the duties of their traditional position assignment, but to allow them to perform the work traditionally performed by other employees on the team. The MSWs receive a participation differential for this. The MSW programs are temporary and subject to review prior to continuance (such as when discussing renewal of the MOUs which come up this year).

Are the workers being given enough opportunities for the kind of classroom and on-the-job training required to earn the bonus pay?

As noted above, the MSW participants have pay adjustments and are compensated for the higher level of work they are doing. Yes — generally speaking, they are being given enough training opportunities related to their compensation.

If there are shortcomings in these opportunities, which departments or divisions are farthest behind on implementation? Which are doing best?

It would be difficult to compare since all three departments have been utilizing MSWs for varying amounts of time and for vastly different types of work.

Department of Defense

How many workers are being paid at the MSW rates?

There are seven (7) MSW positions at the DOD that are eligible for the MSW rate and all are on the Hawaii State Veterans Cemetery, Kaneohe (HSVC) MSW Burial Team. (Note: Currently only 6 filled due to a vacancy resulting from an employee failing probation.)

How many are receiving the MSW incentive who have not completed the prescribed trainings and/or are not serving in a more skilled capacity?


What is the DOD’s assessment of how its multiskilled workers programs are going so far? Is it accomplishing its intended results?

The program is working out very well and the transition from formerly contracted burials to the MSW Burial Team has been relatively seamless, especially considering that the burial operation is a no fail mission that conducts between 5 to 12 burials a week, and up to 4 burials per day. It is critical for this operation to function as a MSW team and to have back-up equipment operators always ready to take over in case the primary operators are unavailable, and for equipment operators to come off of their equipment, as well as the Building Maintenance Worker, to help when General Laborer are not available. It is a win-win situation for employees and department. The work is demanding and challenging, but the employees on the team take pride in their job and are compensated financially.

Note: In the DOD’s situation, our MSW pilot program is not a separate program like other departments, and is unique in that we specifically created/developed the program for the unique requirements of the HSVC Burial Team. This is the only place in the DOD where the MSW is used (i.e. There is no place for employees to return to if they do not succeed in the program unless they are internal hires, in which case they would go back to their old civil service position if they are within the return rights window.

Are the workers being given ample opportunities for the kind of classroom and on-the-job training required to earn the bonus pay?

Yes. The most important aspect at the HSVC is the on-the-job and cross level training. Formal Fork Lift training is the only certification requirement, and training is provided on the veterans cemetery standards which are based on Veteran Affairs (VA) National Cemetery Association (NCA) standards.

If there are shortcomings in these opportunities, what is the plan to improve access to such opportunities?

There are no shortcomings that we are aware of. We have quarterly consultation meetings with UPW, as required, to address issues and resolve issues, if any.

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