State Employee Faces Ethics Charges for Massaging Coworkers (and Rules)
A recent investigation by the Washington State Auditor’s Office revealed that a former employee of the Department of Ecology had spent more than 85 hours giving coworkers massages while on the clock. The employee was training to become a massage therapist and was using state time to fulfill practice requirements to obtain her license. The Auditor’s Office determined that the employee had violated ethics laws by using state resources for personal gain. This case illustrates the risks of ethics charges that face state employees who also hold private jobs.
Washington’s Ethics in Public Service Act forbids employees from using state resources for personal gain. In a recent post, we talked about how two UW employees violated the ethics law by earning overtime pay for personal internet use. In this case, the Department of Ecology employee violated the ethics law in multiple ways by using state resources both in excess of the allowable amount and for personal gain to advance her career as a massage therapist.
Excessive Personal Use of State Resources
The ethics law allows a state employee’s occasional, limited personal use of state resources, so long as the use:
-Costs the state nothing or next to nothing
-Does not interfere with official duties
-Does not present a security risk
Here, the Department of Ecology employee used several state resources. First, and probably most importantly, she was paid by the state for the 85 hours in which she gave massages. Even more, the coworkers who received free massages were also earning wages. In addition, she gave massages on state property and used her state email account to send 271 massage-related emails.
The employee’s use of state resources seems to amount to an ethics violation. The wages that the employee and her coworkers earned during the massages were not of little or no cost to the state. The 30-90 minute massages were not brief. 67 massages over the course of one year is not infrequent. Finally, the time the employee spent setting up for and giving massages and sending massage-related emails probably interfered with her official duties.
Use of State Resources for Personal Gain
While outside employment is permitted for state employees, it must not interfere with their official duties. In addition, the ethics law prohibits the use of state resources for personal financial gain, private employment, or outside business purposes.
Here, the Department of Ecology employee was not paid for the massages she gave. However, the massages were still for personal gain and outside business purposes because the employee was fulfilling requirements to further her career as a massage therapist. In addition, the employee used her state email account to communicate with coworkers about their becoming paying clients once she earned her license. Those emails certainly fall under the ethics law’s prohibitions.
This case is an example of the ethical pitfalls that state employees can face, especially if they hold another job. For those employees, the easiest way to avoid ethics investigations or charges is to keep both jobs entirely separate. If you need help understanding the ethics law, dealing with ethics investigations, or preventing ethical violations, contact an employment attorney for advice.