Tony Owens, the former Vice President of Bargaining for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000 in Los Angeles, was suspended for six months without pay from his California Public Employee’s Retirement System (CalPERS) on Monday following an investigation that found that he had committed $44,000 worth of time sheet fraud last year.
In 2018, Owens was elected by SEIU members to become the next Vice President of bargaining, holding that position in addition to his CalPERS IT position. Owens, in addition to several other leaders elected in subsequent years, were part of the force that removed many allies of SEIU President Yvonne Walker in the lead-up to her eventual replacement in May of 2021. In late June 2020, following the COVID-19 pandemic coming fully into the state and national picture, Governor Gavin Newsom called on for volunteers to be contact tracers on COVID-19 cases to help mitigate the spread of the virus. As the contact tracing constituted a union activity, and the SEIU paid out one week of union leave per month at a 135% compensation rate compared to usual pay, Owens told CalPERS he would be volunteering and stopped working there to volunteer.
According to a CalPERS notice, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) did not give him a contact tracing position following going on leave on July 1st last year. At the same time, Owens continued handing in time sheets and getting paid to not work at CalPERS for the volunteer position he did not have.
CalPERS officials repeatedly contacted Owens throughout the latter half of 2020, asking him for more information about his volunteering assignment in Los Angeles. But Owens continued to dodge them until January of 2021, when CalPERS finally gave an ultimatum of giving the volunteer information, returning to work, resigning, or retiring.
In an e-mail, Owens finally gave his bosses a clearer picture as to what was going on, noting that while he was not given a contact tracing volunteer position, he was supporting state employees who had been affected by COVID.
“During this pandemic, I have been working 7 days a week, supporting state employees who have been affected by COVID,” said Owens in a January e-mail. “I volunteered for the contact tracing assignment and I am certified. CDPH has not responded to me.”
Owens response prompted CalPERS to look more into whether or not Owens had done any work during that time or volunteering. When Owens returned to work at CalPERS in late January earlier this year, he was informed that since he had not worked in January, his personal leave would be used in place of the unpaid time. While it covered January, he did not have enough PTO to cover the rest of the 6 months he had been supposedly volunteering.
$44,000 in fraudulent time sheets
While CalPERS investigation continued in 2021, finding $44,000 in fraudulent time sheets, Owens appealed to the CalPERS personnel board to remove his case. As he had been punished for his January loss of hours, Owens said that any other punishment would be double jeopardy. However, CalPERS successfully argued that the January action was not discipline but simply not paying him for time not worked. Owens continued to add claims throughout the year, including alleging the investigation was retaliation for him being a union leader and discrimination.
CalPERS, which is continuing the pursuit to be reimbursed the $44,000 from the union, finally got the six-month suspension without pay on Owens, essentially locking him out of his job.
Legal experts noted on Monday that other actions could take place in the coming months.
“CalPERS could have taken it much farther,” San Jose labor lawyer Elliot Hall told the Globe Monday. “He literally took money for not working and saying he did. He was busted on the time sheets as well as even admitted to not volunteering in an e-mail.”
“We’re now starting to get more cases like these in court over COVID pandemic compensation, and Owens being punished for this sends a powerful message to not screw the state over.”
“Does it still happen? Oh my yes. But now it’s clear that not even high ranked or powerful people like, say, a union higher up, are not immune to this. It will be interesting to see where this goes and who else may be caught red-handed over pulling something similar.”
Owens has since appealed the action against him and is to be heard before the State Personnel Board soon.
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