Long-term leave policy cited by Montanaro used for 1,600 state jobs

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – More than 1,600 positions in state government are effectively on hold, with employees having the right to return to them and potentially bump the worker who holds the job now, according to data reviewed by the Target 12 Investigators.

The little-known personnel policy – known as “Leave to Protect” – was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year after a Target 12 investigation revealed that a six-figure State House employee was able to hold onto his old job at Rhode Island College for three years, and thereby secure nearly $50,000 in free tuition for his family.

In June, the staffer – former Rep. Frank Montanaro Jr., hired by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello to run the General Assembly’s administrative arm – said he was able to tap into the perk by claiming Leave to Protect status.

“When I decided to come here I didn’t know if I was going to fit in this position, if it was going to be a job that I would like,” Montanaro told Target 12 at the time. “So I basically exercised my contract and requested a Leave to Protect status.”

But Mark Dingley, deputy director of the R.I. Department of Administration, said Montanaro was not actually using Leave to Protect to keep his RIC job waiting in the wings for him for three years.

“Frank Montanaro was not on Leave to Protect status,” Dingley told Target 12. “He was not part of the state system, he was part of the college system. So from our perspective and our Leave to Protect rules, he did not fall under the state’s Leave to Protect status rules.”

Kristy dosReis, a RIC spokesperson, said Montanaro was actually using a provision in his RIC union contract that allowed employees to be granted an unpaid leave of absence for up to one year, “subject to renewal” by leaders of the college, according to language in the contract.

But dosReis said while more than 100 leaves have been extended at RIC over the past decade, Montanaro is the only member of his former union who has been granted a leave beyond on year under that specific contract provision.

Leave to Protect

Dingley said Leave to Protect is a personnel policy created decades ago to entice state employees to seek a promotion, but not risk unemployment if they were unable to pass a merit examination.

“The Leave to Protect rule was developed really in large part as a management tool to encourage employees to accept promotions, take a chance on a new opportunity and later if they did not pass the exam for that opportunity they would still have the ability to go back to their former position,” he said.

Merit exams are no longer common with promotions in state government, Dingley said. Yet the Leave to Protect policy has expanded to cover more employees as another job protection prized by organized labor.

A database of state workers currently considered on Leave to Protect shows 1,640 positions are currently in that status, some stretching back to 2009. Dingley said there is no time limit on how long an employee can keep an old job on hold, and – depending on the status of the position – workers can keep the right to up to three job titles at once.

Just because a job is being held for its previous holder, however, does not mean the position is left unfilled. It just means the person who currently holds the position could potentially be bumped if a state worker decides to exercise his or her Leave to Protect rights.

A small sample of the list shows it has grown in two years: a 2015 database provided by the state had just over 1,400 positions on hold, 200 fewer than the 2017 list.

But Dingley said despite the number of people who have the option to return to their old job not many people trigger the provision, which requires them to accept the old job’s usually lower pay.

“Over the past two years Leave to Protect has been adopted or accepted by an employee 68 times,” Dingley said. “It is not something that management feels interferes with management’s ability to effectively manage government on a day-to-day basis.”

Dingley said state leaders are in the middle of a sweeping review of personnel policy and pay rules as part of an effort to make state government run more effectively and efficiently. But it is unlikely that the Leave to Protect rule will be on the chopping block.

“I think it would be difficult to change – it’s a protection offered to employees and the unions are very active when it comes to looking at those types of protections,” Dingley said. “I think if we tried to eliminate it we would run into some union opposition.”

Because Montanaro was not technically on Leave to Protect status, his name was not on the 2015 list provided to Target 12. In fact, Dinlgey said, if Montanaro had been a state worker – rather than a college employee – he would never have been able to claim the status.

“He moved from what’s known as a classified position to an unclassified position,” Dingley said. “Under the state rules governing Leave to Protect status, if you take that type of move, if you make a move from classified to unclassified, you’re not protected.”

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Ted Nesi contributed to this report.