Despite a gloomy budget outlook, Department of Social and Health Services employees from around the state will be in Tacoma this month for an all-expenses paid workshop that promises to be both "fun" and educational.
Community Services Division (CSD) employees were sent an invitation to the all-staff workshop on June 3, just one day after DSHS Secretary Kevin Quigley sent a department-wide letter warning workers to prepare for potentially crippling budget cuts.
In the June 2 email, Quigley said the department projected a funding gap of between $1 billion and $2.5 billion for the 2015-2017 biennial budget.
"You only need to motivate people in this fashion if you have a bunch of deadbeat employees to begin with."
"Alas, this contributes to the more disheartening news that we will be asked by the [Office of Financial Management] to create budget reduction proposals," Quigley wrote in the email obtained by KIRO Radio. "I'm sorry the news is not brighter, especially in light of how much you and our clients have already endured and the great work you are doing to stay focused every day."
The very next day, Community Services Division employees were sent an invitation from CSD Director Babs Roberts. CSD is a division of DSHS and is primarily responsible for public assistance benefits, such as food, medical, and housing for families in need.
"Community Services Division is hosting a 'One CSD All Staff Workshop' in August 2014," read the invitation, which was sent to KIRO Radio by an anonymous state employee. "This will be a great opportunity to meet and network with staff from around the state and have some fun too!"
KIRO Radio spoke with Roberts about the timing of the invitation.
"I don't think I understood that the timing happened exactly like that," Roberts said. "Certainly I can see where [the timing] would be odd, would seem inappropriate."
While the workshop was optional, 2,160 of the division's 2,765 full-time employees RSVP'd for one of three, two-day sessions, the first of which was held Aug. 20 and 21 at the Tacoma Convention Center.
When asked in July how much the workshop would cost taxpayers, a spokesperson for DSHS estimated the cost at around $285,000. When pressed further about whether the estimate included projected airfare, lodging and other expenses, DSHS upped the estimated cost to $600,000.
According to numbers provided by DSHS, costs include $17,500 for guest speakers, $65,377 for catering, $125,186 for lodging, and $101,566 for employee per diems.
Roberts defended the cost of the workshop and said it is a good use of taxpayer money, especially given the agency's looming budget shortfall.
"We want to ensure that we're using public dollars, taxpayer dollars, in the most efficient and effective way possible. That means investing in the resources and the staff that we have to ensure that they know what they're doing, that they're doing it well, and they're doing it efficiently."
Roberts said the employee engagement workshop will save taxpayers money through increased productivity, accuracy, and improved employee wellness.
"The workshops are focused at making sure that staff have some ability to hear their leadership talk about the mission, the vision, the goals. How do we measure our success?" she said. "Because that will engage them. People who are engaged in the work that they do will do better at that work, and that's what we want is employees who are engaged and who feel valued and heard."
According to Roberts, it has been more than five years since CSD employees attended an engagement workshop of any kind.
Asked if she would still consider the workshop a good use of taxpayer money if her division has to cut services to the public or furlough employees, Roberts reinforced the importance of employee engagement.