She didn't go back to work for more than three years. But the state did not stop sending paychecks, and even issued four raises to bring her salary up 10 percent, to $74,300.
Thornton's 1,206 days on paid leave are more than any other state employee since 2007. She is among 68 workers placed on continuous leave for at least one year during that period, at a total cost in salary of more than $5 million, a Tribune investigation found.
The paper found the state regularly pays employees not to work, even as it faces gaping budget gaps and service cutbacks. Between 2007 and September of this year, the 2,033 employees put on paid leave have cost the state $23 million, according to a Tribune analysis of state data.
Paid administrative leave prevents an employee from going to work — typically, during an investigation into alleged wrongdoing — and is considered a serious sanction. But there is wide leeway for supervisors to impose such an action. In one instance, the paper found, a mental health technician was put on leave for allegedly driving her car too fast in her agency's parking lot.
The state declined to provide specific reasons that these employees were placed on leave or details on their cases. But, using confidential documents and interviews, the Tribune learned that the process can be slowed by communication problems, staff shortages and lengthy investigations.
Gov. Pat Quinn's office, responding to questions, said paid leave is carefully monitored by the administration, but its use is necessary to protect taxpayers and "vulnerable populations," pointing out that employees are entitled to due process, and that "time-intensive" investigations are sometimes necessary.
The governor's office also said it had instructed agency heads "to review policies and procedures, and make certain the state is doing all it can to ensure people who should not be on administrative leave are not."
Rep. Jack Franks, D-Woodstock, chairman of the House State Government Administration Committee, said the lengthy leaves found by the Tribune hurt the state's finances as well as employees' morale.
"It's shocking but not surprising," he said. "There's no excuse to have something pending for more than a year. If they need a short extension, that may be prudent, but I don't see how they can defend someone being on leave for more than three years, one year — even six months, frankly."
Once on leave, employees face few requirements. They can't speak to co-workers. For jobs that require clocking in — say, a corrections officer — employees may need to place a brief call to a supervisor. Workers sometimes are asked to be reachable during business hours.
But the reality, employees interviewed by the Tribune say, is that they are free to spend their time however they wish. Sometimes they even find another job.
"I didn't call in," said Christine Znaniecki, a retired veterans affairs employee who logged more than 1,100 days after being placed on leave in 2008 and took a part-time job at Wal-Mart. "I didn't have to call in. The checks just kept coming in the mail."
Subject to union rules
Under union rules, most of the state's 60,000 employees can be dismissed only for cause, meaning they must first be investigated and their future decided at a disciplinary hearing.
Leave periods are authorized by agency directors and must be approved by the director of the Department of Central Management Services, which serves as a clearinghouse for personnel matters. The reason must be "of an extraordinary nature," and leaves should be imposed when there is no alternative, such as suspension or temporary reassignment, under state rules.
But paid leave is used even for seemingly ordinary transgressions. "It's a relatively low bar, quite honestly," said Michael Rumman, a former central management services director. "Any time you feel there is something inappropriate in any fashion, you have the ability to put somebody on a paid administrative leave while you assess a situation."
Most investigations are conducted by the Office of Executive Inspector General, which investigates possible administrative violations. Potential criminal violations are passed on to the Illinois State Police or the Illinois attorney general. Both agencies defended their investigations and said they are conducted in a thorough and timely manner.