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OPEA announces plans to sue state health department for wrongfully terminated employees

OKLAHOMA CITY - Hundreds of employees who were terminated from the Oklahoma State Department of Health announced that they intend to sue the agency.

On Tuesday, the Oklahoma Public Employees Association announced that it has notified the OSDH that it intends to seek compensation on behalf of 161 members who were wrongfully terminated by the department in December of 2017 and March of 2018.

Officials say the former employees were terminated, forced to resign or take early retirement due to the department's mismanagement and mishandling of funds.

“These employees were terminated or forced to retire because health department officials claimed they had a $30 million budget shortfall but that claim was false. The premise used by the health department was wrong and their actions caused financial, mental and emotional hardship for those employees,” said Sterling Zearley, executive director Oklahoma Public Employees Association. “We’ve tried to work with the health department administration to fix this but they don’t seem interested in correcting it.”

In December of 2017, health department officials claimed that they needed to reduce spending by more than $30 million to balance the budget.

However, an audit determined that was not the case.

“This report identifies numerous issues at the Health Department regarding its internal accounting processes and procedures,” said Oklahoma State Auditor Gary Jones. “Among our findings is that the agency did not need the $30 million emergency supplemental appropriation it received last November. And, we question the need to terminate 198 employees.”

“The health department employees, state leaders and Oklahoma citizens were duped by former health department officials who claimed there was a $30 million shortfall. The actions taken were based on negligence of those leaders," Zearley said. “We are going to do all we can to recover some of the financial damages the employees incurred as a result of the department’s wrongdoing.”

News 4 reached out to OSDH for comment:

"We regret the impact that the Reduction-In-Force had on our former employees. The agency had been in discussions with OPEA and their counsel, and there are still legal and financial questions that must be carefully reviewed surrounding the Reduction-In-Force.  OSDH has also aggressively engaged in recalling classified positions that were vacated during the Reduction-In-Force.  We feel the strain on our service delivery around the state, primarily in County Health Departments, from this forced departure and have tried to expedite the recall process within the boundaries of current law," said Tony Sellars.

Sellars says 108 RIF employees have been taken off the recall list (13 rehired from the recall, 3 opted out, 92 failed to respond) and 51 RIF employees remain on the recall list.