By Brad Shannon, August 29, 2014

A division within Washington’s biggest state agency spent $600,000 for airfare, mileage, lodging, food and guest speakers to put on educational workshops in Tacoma for about 2,160 state employees who work in welfare- and food stamp-related programs.

There were three two-day events that ended Thursday at the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center. Each was meant to get employees more engaged in their jobs with agency leaders by talking about goals and vision, according to the Department of Social and Health Services. Workers in the Community Services Division attended, and the average cost per employee for the two-day sessions amounted to about $217.

State Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville blasted the outlay Thursday after a KIRO Radio report as a “splurge,” contending that it showed “contempt for taxpayers.”

“The Community Services Division can’t get a handle on the fraud and abuse involving the (electronic benefit) cards it issues, yet it has no problem bringing thousands of its employees from around the state to a convention center — just so they can spend two days getting ‘engaged’ with their work, at taxpayer expense,” Schoesler said in the release. “… And how exactly does this help preserve the state’s ‘safety net,’ which is what people are always asking the Legislature to do?”

Babs Roberts, the division director who organized the workshops attended by a majority of the division’s staff members, said it was the first time in more than five years the staff has been brought together on a large scale to learn about agency goals, and that supervisors and managers say workers have returned to the jobs re-energized. She also said a forthcoming state performance audit will show the agency has made “incredible strides” dealing with electronic benefits abuse.

“It is important as well to bring those people together, have them talk and to hear from their leadership directly about how important their work is,” Roberts said. “This has been a long five years with this recession. We need to engage our employees.’’

Roberts said state workers have paid a price through budget cuts that in some cases lowered staffing levels while caseloads grew. The break-out sessions focused on wellness in the workplace, dealing with stress, agency goals and communication strategies.

Top agency leaders, including DSHS Secretary Kevin Quigley, spoke. And Tim Gard, a Denver-based humorist and motivational speaker, discussed his experiences working in similar programs years ago in Montana.

Gard earned $17,500 for his three appearances, a break from his usual $10,000 fee per talk, Roberts said.

DSHS spokeswoman Mindy Chambers said event costs included $19,500 for the venue, $65,377 for catering, $125,186 for lodging, $101,566 for meal allowances for those traveling from other parts of the state, $10,230 for supplies and more than $250,000 for additional travel costs such as mileage, use of state cars or airfare.

Training events are not unusual in agencies. DSHS has done other motivational workshops for staff this year. In early April, it spent $2,500 for an employee seminar on the science of being happy, which featured an expert in brain science.

Other state agencies are holding events to teach workers about computer security, sexual harassment and other issues that affect agency performance and workplace morale.

The DSHS workshop invitations went out to Community Service Division staff members one day after Quigley told staff June 2 in an email about a budget-cutting exercise agencies are doing. Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget director has asked agencies to identify 15 percent reductions in the 2015-17 biennium as his office starts looking for ways to close a budget gap of between $1 billion and $2.5 billion across state government in the next budget cycle.