Secretary spent more time away from work than on job

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A Knox County school system employee has now earned more money on administrative leave than she did when she actually showed up for work.

School officials confirmed to WBIR 10News that Tina Needham, an administrative secretary in the Central Office on the third floor of the Andrew Johnson Building, was placed on paid administrative leave in early July 2012 – more than two years ago – and still collects a check.

Needham, who earns $27,555 annually, was initially hired in early January 2011. Her duties included "office filing, making copies, answering phones and putting packets together for orientation," according to her personnel file.

WBIR attempted to reach Needham at her East Knox County home but she was not there. A neighbor said Needham was his niece, but he didn't know when she would return home, but that "she's around."

Her attorney, Knoxville-based Michael Menefee, told WBIR: "We have had some legal issue with Knox County, however, due to some confidentiality agreements that are in place, we are not able to comment on the story. There's of course more to the story than she's been receiving a paycheck, but I can't comment on it."

Needham has not filed legal action against the county, according to court records. But, Menefee said he is discussing a "settlement" with the county, but declined to elaborate.

The county's law department said there have been some verbal discussions between the two sides, but Needham has not issued a demand letter, asking for money.

School spokeswoman Melissa Ogden offered no explanation why Needham was on administrative leave – and not placed on medical leave – or why she is still on the payroll.

"I think the best way to state it would be that HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations prevent us from providing more detail on Tina Needham's paid administrative leave," Ogden said in an email to 10News.

The Family Medical Leave Act, of FMLA, entitles eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks unpaid leave with health insurance coverage for certain family and medical reasons. It does not, however, guarantee a paycheck.

Needham, 51, previously operated a cleaning service at Fairview Baptist Church and served as an administrative assistant at Retirement Plan Consultants, Inc., according to her job application.

She took a job with the school system in January 2011.

In early February 2012, she was reprimanded for "several conversations" she had weeks prior with other employees "that were considered offensive." A letter in her personnel file also noted that at the time she had been "late almost one day a week" for "the past few months."

Ogden said Needham was placed on administrative leave with pay on July 1, 2012. The following summer, the school system's compensation supervisor, in a letter to school officials, said Needham "will remain on administrative leave with pay until further notice."

Ogden said Needham is the only school employee who is on paid administrative leave.

Knox County Communications Manager Michael Grider said the executive branch does not offer paid administrative leave for its 900 or so general county employees who fall under the mayor's purview. He said they can use sick leave or go on unpaid administrative leave.

The Knox County Sheriff's Office decides whether to place employees on paid administrative leave on a case-by-case basis. Typically, officers involved in a shooting or a domestic dispute with a spouse are placed on paid leave while the department conducts an investigation.

Those with medical issues are not.

The Office of Professional Standards makes a recommendation to the Sheriff, then the Sheriff makes the final decision whether an employee is placed on administrative leave.

Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Martha Dooley said she's not aware of anyone in the department who has spent years on paid administrative leave.

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