BISMARCK — Some North Dakota government employees are doing better than $1,500 performance-based bonuses mandated by state law. In many cases much, much better.

One physician received a recruitment bonus of more than $80,000.

An information technology section leader received almost $21,000 as a retention bonus.

A public information specialist received a recruitment bonus of $15,000.

An IT manager got an $11,000 retention bonus.

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According to a list of the individuals who received bonuses in the first six months of 2020 obtained by The Forum, North Dakota paid more than $223,000 in retention bonuses to state employees between Jan. 1 and May 31. That includes more than $170,000 in retention bonuses paid to 76 employees of the Information Technology Department, by far the leader in state government largesse.

The information comes to light as bonuses paid to state employees are under increased scrutiny given the tough budget outlook North Dakota faces in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and plummeting oil prices.

Critics say the state should rethink the bonuses due to the budget situation and because they are unfair. Defenders of the practice say the perk is authorized by the legislature and serves to attract and retain good employees.

Supporters of bonuses say the amount given out is a fraction of the state budget and individual employees are limited to receiving just $1,500 during a fiscal year.

That limit applies only to performance bonuses, envisioned as a way to reward lower-level workers who might not have large salaries. In the Department of Transportation, for example, 95 employees received $1,000 performance bonuses either on Feb. 28 or May 31.

The $1,500 limit doesn't apply to retention or recruitment bonuses, which are also allowed under North Dakota law. As long as an agency has a written policy identifying eligible positions and provisions for providing bonuses, department heads are free to use them to attract or retain those they deem as particularly valuable workers.

"A retention bonus should be limited to employees in positions that are hard to fill because the demand exceeds the supply and the individual has a unique set of skills or knowledge that will be difficult to replace," Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Jen Raab said.

The state's IT department, under Chief Information Officer Shawn Riley, was particularly adept at handing out retention bonuses often larger than the $1,500 limit placed on performance bonuses.

Duane Schell, the state's chief technology officer, received a retention bonus of $20,742.63 on May 31. Information technology manager John Gieser got a retention bonus of $11,014.75. Kevin Ford, chief information security officer, received a retention bonus of $9,971.66.

In all, the IT department gave out 29 retention bonuses of more than $1,500. That included two more than $10,000, seven more than $5,000 and 24 more than $2,500.

"NDIT did have an increase in retention bonus this year because of the impact of COVID-19 on their work. ... In many cases, the demand for IT specifics does exceed the supply of qualified employees," Raab said.

There are some eye-opening recruitment bonuses that were handed out, too.

Dr. Rose Julius, a psychiatrist, received a bonus of $80,601 to become the medical director at the Northeast Human Service Center in Grand Forks, which is under the state's Department of Human Services. She left a job at Altru Health Systems in Grand Forks and took a substantial pay cut, Raab said.

"She is uniquely qualified in that she is addiction board certified, adult board certified and has the buprenorphine waiver which allows her to conduct medication assisted treatment," Raab said.

Julius' annual salary with the state is $322,404, and the bonus is equal to three months of salary. Julius has a payback agreement that stipulates she must return a portion of the money if she leaves her job in less than three years.

Agencies generally have employees who receive recruitment or retention bonuses sign a repayment agreement, Raab said. If the individual leaves their job, they would repay a portion of the bonus.

Lynn Bargmann received a recruitment bonus of $15,000 to become the director for strategic communications for the Department of Human Services. Raab said Bargmann is a North Dakota native who took a 50% pay cut to leave her job as a communications specialist with Keurig Dr Pepper in Texas to take a job in Bismarck. Her state salary is $90,000 a year.

"Lynn's role is to develop and implement our strategic communications strategy relative to the many initiatives that DHS is working on. This includes cross-agency initiatives, as well," Raab said. "Lynn's vast experience in large scale change management has already proven to be extremely helpful as Team ND has worked through the challenges of COVID-19."

Another bonus of interest: Andrea Travnicek, who was appointed in April by Gov. Doug Burgum to lead the Parks and Recreation Department, received a $5,000 recruitment bonus.

All bonuses, Raab said, are funded from agency budgets for salaries and wages.