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Audit Dings Hospital's 50-Year Practice Of Paid 'Transition Time'

The main entrance of Western State Hospital in Lakewood, Wash.
KUOW Photo/John Ryan

State auditors say Western State Hospital has been losing about $800,000 a year paying for work that's not being done. For decades, the hospital has been letting hundreds of employees start late and leave early -- and still paying for their time.

Workers at Western State Hospital, the largest psychiatric institution in the Northwest, have tough jobs. The severely mentally ill people who depend on their care often lash out. With patients assaulting workers almost daily, it's one of the most dangerous places to work in Washington state.

A whistleblower at the hospital in Lakewood, Washington, tipped off state auditors to a practice that has made many workers' jobs there a bit easier, at taxpayer expense. Some 900 employees get to shave 15 minutes off their work days by either starting their shifts late or leaving early—and still get paid for that time.

It's a longstanding practice at Western, according to Jim Brownell, manager of whistleblower programs at the Washington State Auditor's Office.

"It's been in place for 50 years, was the figure provided to us by DSHS," Brownell said.

The Washington Department of Social and Health Services runs Western State Hospital.

Those 900 Western employees are represented by the Washington Federation of State Employees. The 15 minutes of paid transition time is a standard practice at hospitals, according to union spokesman Tim Welch.

"It doesn't necessarily mean that they're not working a full 8-hour day," Welch said. "It just means they budgeted that 15 minutes of time so they can get off the ward, not create any disturbance or distraction or disruption to the patients there and be able to adequately prepare or get ready to leave work."

In its response to the audit report, DSHS said the practice was one of the department's top concerns as it enters into collective bargaining talks with the union.

Those talks start later this month, according to Welch.

Registered nurses at Western State Hospital belong to the Service Employees International Union and don't get the same benefit.

Year started with KUOW: 2009