PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The price tag for state employee retention bonuses continues to climb, as the $3,000 incentives covered by taxpayer money are going to hundreds of non-union workers across state government.

The R.I. Department of Administration this week released the names of 579 non-union employees receiving the bonuses, revealing the money is being distributed to workers in high-paying jobs including judges with lifetime appointments.

Rhode Island courts spokesperson Craig Berke defended the payments, saying it’s a “long-standing practice” in the judicial system to provide the same compensation and benefits package given to general state employees.

“The Judiciary views these bonus payments as part of the overall compensation package negotiated by the state with its union employees and, consistent with past practice and with the approval of the Chief Justice, has afforded them to all Judiciary employees,” Berke said in a statement.

Chief Justice Paul Suttell is listed as one of the recipients of the $3,000 bonuses, according to DOA. Suttell, according to Berke, approved the bonuses for himself and other non-union judiciary employees. Berke said the state court administrator also signed off on that decision.

The state’s transparency portal lists Suttell as earning an annual salary of $250,041. The list of non-union employees set to receive the $3,000 payment also includes multiple other workers earning six-figure salaries.

The bonuses for non-union employees will cost taxpayers about $1.7 million in addition to the $18 million price tag state budget officials had already estimated for members of Council 94. The bonuses originally came out of negotiations last year between the McKee administration and Council 94, the state’s largest union group, and they were initially pitched as a vaccine incentives.

But the idea evoked sharp criticism from both the public and lawmakers, including R.I. Deputy House Speaker Charlene Lima who described it as a “misuse of taxpayer dollars.” Gov. Dan McKee subsequently described the vaccine incentive a misstep and decided instead to offer the bonuses as a “retention tool.”

On Thursday, McKee spokesperson Matt Sheaff noted that the executive branch chose not to give the bonuses to non-union workers, saying other branches of government — including the judiciary and legislature — made their own budgetary decisions. He also defended the bonuses more broadly, arguing the state should be focusing on trying to retain workers in today’s job market.

“As of November, the count of filled [full-time employee] positions was at its lowest level in over a decade and there is difficulty filling open positions in state government,” Sheaff said. “The bonuses were part of the negotiation and intended to improve the recruitment and retention of state employees.”

Still, the decision to pay the $3,000 to state workers who didn’t experience job losses caused by pandemic-related shutdowns like employees in other job sectors — such as restaurants and tourisms — has come with some backlash. And the idea that money is going to high-paid employees, including judges who have lifetime appointments, has drawn criticism from government watchdogs.

John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said the bonuses have been mislabeled from the beginning.

“They’re not ‘retention bonuses’ because they’re clearly being given to quite a few employees who aren’t at risk of leaving state employment,” Marion said. “Foremost among those are judges. Rhode Island is the only state in the country that gives every state judge lifetime tenure without a retirement date.”

Berke agreed, saying, “The subject bonus payments were at first designated by the governor as vaccination bonuses and later as ‘retention bonuses.’ However, this designation is rather inaccurate.” He noted the McKee administration never tied the extra money to any buy-in from employees to stay on for any required period of time.

“In this light, these bonus payments are not true retention bonuses because they pertain to past, not prospective, employment,” Berke said. “In the spirit of appreciation for the perseverance they displayed over the course of the pandemic – during which the Judiciary did not cease to operate, not for a single day – we view these bonus payments as well-deserved compensation for our hard-working employees, judicial officers included.”

Marion said it would have been better if the bonuses had gone through the typical budget process where the public would have had input on which employees got bonuses and how much those payments would be. He said the idea of bonuses or employment incentives during a pandemic isn’t necessarily a bad idea on its own, pointing to the example of healthcare worker retention.

“There’s good policy reason to give a bonus to a nurse,” he said. “I would submit there’s not a good policy reason to give bonuses to every employee in certain departments of state government regardless of what role they play, and to give them the same amount.”

As of last month, the state remained in negotiations with other state union groups, which could result in additional costs tied to the bonuses.

Marion hopes the legislature uses the budget process to question why the money for these payments was available.

“Why are there discretionary funds sitting around to allow different folks to do this?” he said. “That’s a question I’d like to know an answer to.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Kim Kalunian (kkalunian@wpri.com) is an anchor and reporter for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.

Ted Nesi contributed to this report.