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Employees association seeking possible legal action after Oklahoma health department audit

OKLAHOMA CITY - A state employees' association is now working with attorneys after an audit revealed the layoff of nearly 200 health workers was unnecessary.

Months after officials began investigating the Oklahoma State Department of Health, an audit released Thursday found the agency did not need the $30 million emergency supplemental appropriation and the termination of 198 employees was questionable.

Sterling Zearley, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association (OPEA), said his office plans to meet with attorneys either next Monday or Tuesday to discuss whether they can seek legal action.

"Not only did that affect those 200 people and their families, it affected people who they were providing services for," Zearley told News 4. "When you have a state agency that has broken this trust of not just the state employees but the public in general, there needs to be some ramifications so this does not happen going forward. We need to set some kind of legal parameters or precedence showing, hey, if you do this, there’s going to be consequences for your actions."

Zearley admits, while it's unclear what kind of legal action they can take, if any, it's important to get justice for former state health employees like 54-year-old Joleyne Temple. She lost her job due to the 'reduction in force' (RIF) in March.

"It’s worst now than it actually was on March 2," Temple said, speaking on the audit results. "We were wanting something to make us feel a little bit better and actually, we feel a little worse."

Temple worked for the Garvin County Health Department in Pauls Valley as a district nurse manager, totaling 28 years of service. She's applied for jobs every week and said, so far, there have been no leads.

"Unemployment is nothing compared to what the salary that I was making. I can’t get a job. I’ve tried to get jobs and because I was with public health for 28 years, that’s my specialty," she told News 4. "Every two weeks, you get this disappointing news that, well, I’m not hired here and, of course, struggling trying to pay the bills... weekly, what’s going to go this week? What’s going to go next week on this little minuscule amount?"

Temple said she earned a Masters in Business Administration and is considering changing careers if she cannot find a job in public health.

Tom Bates, interim commissioner of health, released a statement Friday afternoon stating he was committed to restoring public confidence in the agency.

"In addition to the employees that were included in the RIF, we have had 231 additional resignations since October last year, which has placed additional strain on our workforce. We are now working diligently to fill those positions. For example, we are holding a hiring event Monday, May 21 to fill much needed Nurse Surveyors for long-term care and non-long term care medical facilities," Bates said in part. "I have also recognized that we must improve our relationships with stakeholders across the state, including county health departments and local boards of health. We must make sure that local health department staffing patterns are structured to provide each county maximum flexibility with local resources. Partnerships in public health are critical to any success and we will be committed to improving our communication, rebuilding trust and creating better opportunities for staff and citizens."

Bates said the worst thing the agency could do at this point, is spend money without a strategic budget plan.

"Moving forward, we are not going to simply rebuild the old health department. Instead, we will use this situation to find additional efficiencies, improve financial controls and be better stewards of taxpayer dollars," he said. "Internally, we are addressing concerns expressed about the atmosphere at OSDH. There must be an open and honest line of communication between agency leadership and all employees. We will continue to solicit ideas from every employee to help push us forward."