Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Some folks have inquired about the state Auditor’s Office looking into the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office. I’m happy to share what happened.
On Aug. 9, 2012, I received a letter from county Commissioner Greg Tompkins that stated, in part, “It has been reported to us that certain employees in the Sheriff’s Office may have taken leave without reporting or accounting for same on payroll leave reports and Walla Walla County Payroll Worksheets. We in turn have, as required by law, made a report to the state Auditor’s Office ...”
The employees referred to were command staff officers. I immediately felt better because I knew there have been grumblings and misconceptions about how differently I run my command staff in order to accomplish our mission versus previous administrations and other county departments — not better or worse, just different.
That though, did not reduce my responsibility to confirm there had been no wrong doing, especially in light of the investigation that was under way at that time regarding the previous administration’s undersheriff’s theft of funds. I was glad that the State Auditor’s Office was going to be looking into the matter.
Current WWSO command staff officers are Fair Labor Standards Act exempt employees. As such, they are exempt from collective bargaining agreements and have virtually no rights under FLSA overtime rules. About all an exempt employee is entitled to under the FLSA is to receive their base monthly salary in any work period during which they perform work.
Per our county’s policy manual, an FLSA exempt employee “is compensated in relationship to the overall level of expected job performance over a period of time, and not according to the number of hours that are worked.”
At first glance, that sounds like a pretty sweet deal, but by the time employees reach this level in their career, they are generally the most reliable employees who work whatever hours are needed to get the job done, and the vast majority of the time it averages out to be far greater than 40 hours per week without any additional compensation or overtime pay.
This is certainly the case here at the Sheriff’s Office. Our command staff officers work on an aggregate far more than 40 hours per week between regular daily workloads, working at night, working on weekends, ongoing projects, the inevitable issues that pop up, working with other law enforcement agencies, being on-call, off-hour call-outs, the SWAT team, the Search and Rescue Team, the new CART team (Child Abduction Response Team), investigations, personnel issues, search warrants, arrest warrants, off-hour notifications, surveillances, disturbances in the jail, training, finance and budget, special events, emails and phone calls from home and elsewhere.
We are very fortunate to have such dedicated and talented people; they do a wonderful job for our community.
When I was elected as your sheriff, I attended the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission’s Newly Elected Sheriff’s School. During conversations with other sheriffs, I confirmed that the state’s best practice for salaried exempt law enforcement command staff officers was the same as what I was familiar with. This same practice is how I run my command staff.
After receiving the above referenced letter, I contacted Mitch Barker, the executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. From WASPC, I confirmed our Sheriff’s Office conforms to state best practices and that other law enforcement command staffs in the state are run the same way as ours — as FLSA exempt employees not subject to set schedules and the same timekeeping documentation as other employees who are not exempt.
In my experience, other departments in local government struggle with this because their operations are not law enforcement related and don’t run 24/7 like we do. Law enforcement is just another animal. It’s different from other government departments — always has been and most likely always will be.
On Dec 18, 2012, I received a letter from Sarah Walker, fraud manager for the Washington State Auditor’s Office with the results of their investigation. It stated, “We initiated an investigation and determined these employees are exempt — meaning they do not have a set schedule for when they are required to be at work. The (FLSA) has an ‘Exclusion for elected officials and their employees.’ As an appointed member of the Sheriff’s personal staff ... (they) would be excluded from coverage of the Fair Labor Standards Act.”
Although I was confident in how we were running things, I was glad to learn that the state Auditor’s Office agreed and found that no wrongdoing had occurred.
My command staff and I remain dedicated to our community and your safety.
John A. Turner is Walla Walla County sheriff.
For a related column by U-B managing editor for news and multimedia Alasdair Stewart, click here.