State Agency Told Disability Workers Not to Discuss Pay | Phoenix New Times

State Agency Told Disability Workers Not to Discuss Pay

"I told my case worker team about the email, but I didn't enforce it, because it's not ethical."
The Arizona Department of Economic Security in south Phoenix.
The Arizona Department of Economic Security in south Phoenix. Elizabeth Whitman
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Amid rising discussion about pay discrepancies between old and new hires this May, disability caseworkers for the state received an unusual warning from management: Don't share salary information with your co-workers.

“Please remind staff that it is not appropriate to be speaking on the floor and speculating about a peers [sic] rate of pay,” says a May 23 email sent by a mid-level manager at a Mesa office of the Arizona Department of Economic Security.

In fact, such information is public record and readily available on the internet — and forbidding employees to discuss their salaries is generally illegal under federal law.

The email was leaked to Phoenix New Times about a week after publication of a story about a group of caseworkers suing the state DES over its alleged poor treatment of the hourly employees, who serve some of Arizona’s most vulnerable individuals.

The Developmental Disabilities Division (DDD) of the Department of Economic Security provides affordable health care and services through Arizona's Medicaid plan to the families of developmentally disabled adults and children.

Earlier this year, the division raised the starting pay for newly hired caseworkers, according to several current employees who spoke with New Times and asked to be anonymous out of fear of retaliation. Under the new policy, starting developmental disability caseworkers in Arizona, also known as support coordinators, make about 8 to 10 percent more than more senior caseworkers in the same position, the employees claim. They said they calculated the discrepancy through conversations with coworkers and current listings at the Department of Administration's State Job Board.

“I have a coworker in my unit who's been here 20 years, and she's making less money than the new people,” said one current employee.

Several caseworkers inside the Mesa office said they asked for explanations, but none were given. One employee at a Phoenix office, who said to call him J.C., speculated it was related to a new emphasis on hiring caseworkers with a higher level of education, but said he was afraid to ask questions given his at-will employee status. J.C. felt caseworkers at his office were especially discouraged from talking about pay with new employees hired to the same position, but were expected to train them.

The training they were required to perform was "on top of our horrible, heavy caseloads that we already have," said a Mesa supervisor who also asked to remain anonymous. Caseworkers did not receive additional pay for this work, several noted.

Another caseworker at a different Phoenix office, B.H., who's been working at the DDD for 13 years, said an order came to train a new hire whose starting rate was a few thousand more than her current salary.

“For a lot of these caseworkers who don't make a lot of money, it's a big difference,” said the Mesa employee. “When this first came out, everyone was talking about it. Supervisors said everyone needed to send an email expressing our frustrations, and they'd send it up to management. We never heard anything back.”

Shortly after, disability caseworkers at the Mesa office were given the emailed directive on pay.

“They sent out an email to the supervisors instructing staff that they aren't allowed to talk about it anymore, and that we're not allowed to talk about salary at work — which is not true,” the employee said.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, employers generally can't ban the discussion of salary or working conditions among employees. State municipal employees are often exempt from these protections. But the salaries of public employees are already public record — AZ Data Central's Arizona Government Salary Database lists the salaries of current DDD caseworker employees.

Nevertheless, the email from an area program manager (the caseworker who provided it asked that the manager's name also remain anonymous) at the Mesa DDD office states:

"Subject: Employee pay
Importance: High

Good Morning team,

It was brought to my attention that there is a lot of talk on the floor about employee pay, who might be receiving higher pay and who is not. Please speak to your teams today and remind them that what a peer is being paid or not being paid is confidential only to that employee. I do understand that they are frustrated and want answers... When I am given information to be shared I will absolutely and immediately share this information with anyone that has the need and right to know it.

Again, please remind staff that it is not appropriate to be speaking on the floor and speculating about a peers [sic] rate of pay. This is confidential information known to this employee, just as their rate of pay is confidential to them.”

"I told my case worker team about the email, but I didn't enforce it, because it's not ethical," said one of the Mesa supervisors who received the email. "But if you do talk, it's then considered insubordination. It was implied: Don't talk about it, or else there'll be consequences."

The DDD recently has come under fire for its treatment of disability caseworkers. As New Times reported on August 8, a recently filed lawsuit against the state of Arizona alleges they’re regularly given double the caseloads they’re legally supposed to manage, and don't receive pay for overtime hours they must work to serve all of their developmentally disabled clients.

Plaintiffs in that lawsuit, as well as other current case worker staff who talked to New Times, have spoken about a culture of pervasive fear at the DDD that suppresses employees — who can be fired without explanation at any time — from speaking out against questionable work conditions. The DDD does not track retention rates for its staff, but almost half of case workers have been employed by the Division for two years or less, according to DES data obtained public information request.

"I am not aware of any such directives to employees in the Mesa office," said Tasya Peterson, DES director of communications, of the May 23 email. "DES uses objective criteria to determine appropriate levels of compensation for its Division of Developmental Disabilities support coordinators ... The actual compensation afforded an employee will depend on the individual employee’s knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) inclusive of their education and experience, for example. The KSAs for support coordinators align with the Department’s contractual obligations with AHCCCS."
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