Family Leave Proves Lucrative for a Multnomah County Jail Deputy

County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury says overtime use "doesn't pass the smell test."

The Multnomah County Sheriff's Office's overtime spending has long been controversial.

Since 2009, when Sheriff Dan Staton took office, MCSO overtime has averaged about $7.5 million a year, most of that for corrections deputies. That has been a recurrent point of contention between Staton and county commissioners.

Now, one corrections deputy has exploited a new county benefit—paid family leave—to earn overtime during a stretch when he was supposed to be home with his wife and new baby.

Last November, Multnomah County adopted an aggressive new family leave policy, giving the county's nearly 5,000 employees six weeks paid leave upon the birth, adoption or foster care placement of a dependent child.

That made the county the first local government in Oregon to offer such a benefit.

"This new policy will make kids healthier," County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury said then, "and will allow mothers and fathers to develop meaningful bonds with their child at a critical stage in their new baby's life."

It didn't take long for one county employee, Jason Lowe, a 15-year MCSO corrections deputy, to spot a financial opportunity in the new policy. Lowe's wife, Jessica, also a corrections deputy, gave birth to a baby, and Lowe went on family leave beginning March 20.

Lowe stayed on leave through April 30, getting paid for 40 hours a week at his regular rate of $37.32 an hour. That meant because of the county's new policy, Lowe got paid $8,956 of regular salary to stay home with Jessica and their new baby. He was paid for not working, as the policy intended.

But during the six weeks Lowe was being paid to take parental leave, records show he also worked 72 hours of overtime—raking in more than $4,000 in extra pay on top of his salary. No other county employee has worked overtime while on paid parental leave.

Lowe declined to comment, but Sgt. Catherine Gorton, president of the Multnomah County Corrections Deputy Association, says what he did was fine.

"Deputy Lowe's overtime was approved by the County and within their policy," Gorton writes in an email. "Deputy Lowe did nothing wrong."

Sheriff's office spokesman Capt. Steve Alexander also says Lowe followed MCSO guidance on parental leave. "He was authorized to work the overtime shifts," Alexander says.

Kafoury disagrees. "I'm shocked that the deputy thought it was OK and his manager would sign off on it," she says. "It doesn't pass the smell test."

The disagreement over the parental leave policy is the latest chapter in a struggle between the sheriff's office and the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners about overtime costs at the jails.

The sheriff is independently elected, but the MCSO budget—$135 million for 2015-16—is set by the county chair and approved by the board.

For years, an annual review of the jails by a grand jury has highlighted high costs and overtime in particular. A 2013 county audit found that overtime could be as cost-efficient as hiring new staff, but Staton angered commissioners by continuing to overspend his overtime budget significantly.

Finding a balance between overtime and additional staffing will be one of the first challenges faced by former Portland Police Chief Mike Reese, who succeeds Staton as sheriff Aug. 16.

Chronic staffing shortages at the jail in recent years have meant corrections deputies such as Lowe can get as much overtime as they want.

Records show that while Lowe was on paid family leave, he also worked nine eight-hour overtime shifts, receiving time-and-a-half payment for seven of them and double-time for the other two. The extra shifts gave Lowe an additional $4,329.

When the parental leave policy went into effect Nov. 1, the sheriff's office added conditions: Deputies taking time off to "bond" with babies were not eligible for overtime. They could only work overtime if subpoenaed to appear in court (Lowe was not), if attending training (Lowe did), or if caring for a spouse with a post-pregnancy disability.

Alexander, the sheriff's office spokesman, says Lowe was caring for his wife, rather than bonding with their baby, and therefore was eligible for overtime shifts. He acknowledges that although it complied with MCSO guidance, Lowe's use of overtime could raise eyebrows.

"It's a new policy," Alexander says. "We knew from the start it would add to overtime because people would be out. We're going to have to take a look at how it's working."

Kafoury says no review is necessary. "It's just obviously wrong and not what we intended," she says of Lowe's overtime. "It's mismanagement. He shouldn't have been allowed to do it."