Oklahoma union to sue state health department over employee terminations

The union representing public employees in Oklahoma will sue the state's health department over employees it says were wrongfully terminated, The Oklahoman reported.

The Oklahoma Public Employees Association seeks $3 million to pay nearly 200 laid-off employees.

Sterling Zearley, executive director of the union, told The Oklahoman state agencies have certain guidelines to follow with layoffs, but the department laid off employees based on "false pretenses."

The health department laid off the workers amid what it said was a $30 million budget shortfall. But the state's multicounty grand jury said the department was not facing that shortfall, according to the report. The report states the department's finances had become complicated and unclear. Oklahoma Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones and Attorney General Mike Hunter told The Oklahoman the job cuts were not necessary to prevent defaulting on bills.

"That prompted us to say, 'Then you illegally terminated those employees because you didn't need to do that,'" Mr. Zearley told the publication.

The union's attorneys notified the state Sept. 28 of its plans to file a lawsuit. The notice of the claim stated employees lost earned benefits and pay because they were terminated, forced to resign or forced to retire early in December 2017 and last March, according to the Tulsa World. It alleges this all happened because of "negligent mismanagement and mishandling of state finances."

A health department spokesperson told media it regrets "the impact that the reduction-in-force had on our former employees."

"The agency had been in discussions with OPEA and their counsel, and there are still legal and financial questions that must be carefully reviewed surrounding the reduction in force," the health department spokesperson said.

The agency said it rehired some of the affected employees, but most went back to different jobs in the department, The Oklahoman reported.

"OSDH has also aggressively engaged in recalling classified positions that were vacated during the reduction in force," the health department spokesperson said. "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."


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