- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - At least 100 employees of the Oklahoma State Department of Health are expected to take a buyout that includes a $5,000 lump-sum payment as the agency looks to avoid potential layoffs amid a budget crunch, agency officials confirmed on Friday.

Already, 101 retirement-eligible workers have accepted the voluntary-buyout offer that was made to 317 of the agency’s 2,258 employees, said department spokesman Tony Sellars. Another 144 employees declined the offer, while the rest are undecided, Sellars said. Employees have until Feb. 29 to accept the offer.

The offer includes a payment equal to 18 months of health-insurance premiums, a $5,000 incentive bonus, the employee’s longevity pay, and the payout of accumulated annual leave.

The agency projects 100 buyouts would cost $2.6 million, with annual recurring savings projected to be $7.2 million.

Many agencies are contemplating staff reductions as oil and gas prices have plummeted, reducing state revenues and leading to deeper budget reductions. The Office of Management and Enterprise services declared a revenue failure, prompting reductions in allocations of 3 percent to agencies beginning last month. Those cuts are expected to grow deeper next month, although the exact amount has not yet been determined.

“More agencies will be considering these options in the coming weeks, especially after the deepened midyear reduction that will occur in March,” said OMES spokesman John Estus. “It gets hard to shield your biggest cost from cuts the more you are cut over time. Something has to give, eventually.”

Two smaller state agencies - the Oklahoma Historical Society and the Oklahoma Real Estate Commission - have offered voluntary buyouts to one employee each, Estus said.

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services and the University of Oklahoma also have announced plans to offer a round of buyouts as they deal with budget cuts.

DHS still hasn’t determined the number of employees interested in taking a buyout, but expects it will involve several hundred workers, said agency spokeswoman Sheree Powell.

In the last year, the agency already has eliminated 275 positions as a result of the closure of two state facilities for disabled adults in Enid and Pauls Valley and the Pauline Mayer shelter in Oklahoma City, as well as the elimination of several vacant positions and a voluntary buyout offered last year, Powell said.

As a result of those reductions, Powell said the agency reduced its payroll by about $17 million for the first six months of the current fiscal year. The agency’s total state-appropriated budget last year was $679 million.

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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