LITTLE ROCK – Department of Human Services officials were intensely questioned by a state lawmaker over a request to eliminate a number of positions that have been vacant for at least a year, questioning if the department is paying people insufficient compensation for taking on added work to absorb the workload.

Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, expressed reservations over the matter Monday at a meeting of the Joint Budget Committee, and said raises given to other employees who were tasked with extra work to cover the unfilled positions were insufficient.

At issue was a request by DHS to cut some staff positions that have not been filled for some time, and to provide pay increases for DHS employees who are tasked with taking on additional work to compensate. Walker noted that the affected pay grades are all lower paying positions, and said those tasked with extra work would likely also be lower paid employees.

Keesa Smith, deputy director of DHS, said the positions that are being eliminated have been vacant for two or more years, and those duties have been distributed among remaining staff.

“Equal distribution of too much work is still unequal distribution,” Walker countered. “We have appropriated $800,000 to go to DDS that were unused. Now that means needs were identified by the legislature that went unmet for over a year.”

Smith told Walker that the money was used to give pay increases to those whose workloads had increased at the human development centers, but Walker said it wasn’t enough.

“The most raises anybody got was 1 or 2 percent. Two percent of $15 is 30 cents an hour,” Walker said. “I don’t think you can say these people got raises. They may have gotten a COLA (cost of living adjustment), but not a raise.” He then asked the average hourly rates of the people who received raises over the past two years.

Six positions were raised at the first of the month from $9.07 to $10 an hour, he was told.

“$10 an hour is $20,160 a year before taxes. Those people are doing twice the work of what they did before for a raise of less than 10 percent,” Walker said, but was told $10 an hour was the level DHS had found was sufficient to retain experienced employees in those positions.

Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, made a motion for immediate consideration of the department appropriation, cutting Walker off from further questioning, to which Walker demanded a roll call vote. The measure fell short by one vote, receiving 21 of the needed 22 votes needed for passage. A number of committee members were absent from the meeting.

Afterward, Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, raised an objection over how the motion was presented.

“I know you may not agree with what Rep. Walker was saying, but the least you could have done was to let him complete what he was saying before making the motion,” said Chesterfield. “I ask that we put ourselves in each other’s position. I would not want to interfere with someone or just cut someone else off simply because I do not disagree. I think it sets a dangerous precedent.”

“It’s pretty routine in the House that when I’m speaking on controversial subjects, that some of the people move for immediate consideration,” Walker said. “If we’re going to have civility, we should have respect for one another. Respect doesn’t mean agreement but it does mean courtesy and we should practice that because we preach it. That goes to the maker of the motion specifically, because she has done that more than once where I’m concerned.”

Walker also raised objections to the lack of minority representation in the leadership hierarchy at the agency, saying it appeared to him that gains in recent years were now being rolled back, with only one African-American on the management team, out of 13 people.

“Under Miss Gillespie, out of all the members on her team, there is one African American on her team,” Walker said. “It’ looks like we’re going backward under the new administration.”

The motion to accept the DHS budget passed with one committee member, Walker, casting a dissenting vote.