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Consultant hired to address 'hostile work environment' at county social services

An exodus of Hubbard County Social Services employees prompted the Minnesota Teamsters Local 320 to get involved.

Roger Meunier, a business agent for Minnesota Teamsters Local 320, represents the 44 social services workers in Hubbard County.

"In the last year-and-a-half, 26 people have left because of, and I quote, 'administration and that the way that they are operating.' Four have left to work close to home, and four were fired because they wouldn't comply while still under probation," he said.

Meunier called the number of departures "ridiculous." He represents 33 different groups of public employees in the state, not all in human services. "I've never seen this before."

On Oct. 12, a Minnesota Teamsters Local 320 member employed by the Hubbard County Social Services Department filed a grievance prior to resigning from her position. She alleges she was subjected to adverse and disparate treatment.

"The woman who resigned was unjustly disciplined," Meunier said in a Minnesota Teamsters Local 320's Facebook announcement. "The woman who resigned was not only an impeccable employee, but also a military veteran who served our country during conflict."

After expending all of her paid vacation time to adopt a child, Meunier said the employee accidentally locked the child in the car on her way to work one morning. "Because she was 15 minutes late, Hubbard County Human Resources Director Gina Teems and Hubbard County Social Services Director Deb Vizecky told her she was 'out of pay status' and that she would not be receiving her negotiated benefit for health insurance, which means she would've had to pay $1,508 out of pocket to pay her next month's health insurance," he said. "That was the last straw for us."

That grievance was resolved, but the employee decided to leave the job, he continued.

Meunier said he and a union steward then met with Hubbard County Coordinator Eric Nerness, giving Nerness "a file of 100 pages or more of complaints, letters brought to the county board, testimonials from members in the form of exit letters."

On Nov. 5, according to Minnesota Teamsters Local 320's Facebook page, Hubbard County agreed "to retain the services of an organizational development consultant to assess the current workplace environment and make recommendations to improve collaboration and morale for social services staff."

In the Facebook announcement, Jennifer Keranen, a social worker for adult protection, said, "Many of us were able to freely discuss our concerns about the workplace, micromanagement as well as an overall lack of trust in our leadership here at the Hubbard County Social Services Center. This is a step in the right direction, and Hubbard County commissioners are finally taking our concerns seriously. We have lost many good staff due to the treatment they have endured. In a time when we are asked to do more with less, we need to spend our energy on our clients, not reacting to a toxic environment."

The consultant's report was presented to social services staff and administration on Dec. 17. It is unclear when the report will be made public. Teems told the Enterprise, "That determination will be made at a later date in accordance with the Minnesota Data Practices Act. We are working to ensure the privacy of the employees and individuals involved."

The county spent $4,955 for the consultant's services between Nov. 13-21.

Complaints

In 2015, Daryl Bessler retired as Hubbard County social services director, having served for 33 years. Deb Vizecky was hired to replace him.

Several former social services employees spoke about their experiences over the past three years.

Brittany Johnson worked as a child support officer for 6.5 years. She resigned in February 2018.

It was a "great environment up until the last couple of years," she said, noting that morale plunged and "there was a lot of ick."

Johnson sought administrative approval for what she called a much-needed vacation. Two months before her three-week backpacking trip, she submitted a written request to use two weeks of her paid vacation time and one week of unpaid leave. The union contract states approval of unpaid leave is at the discretion of Vizecky and Teems. If unapproved, "you have to pay your health premium out of pocket for the next month," Johnson said. "And for family coverage, that's $1,200. I also added in my letter, I would really appreciate having this approved because I really can't afford to pay $1,200 for health insurance."

The unpaid leave was denied.

"You have to understand, I'm not an employee that was gone all the time. I was never tardy unless the roads were icy, it's 40 below and I'm going to be 15 minutes late," Johnson said. "So I just decided, with that, it was time to resign."

Johnson said she left on good terms, "but I thought it was ridiculous they wouldn't honor that request."

In her exit interview questionnaire, Johnson said she attached her observations of the department, along with her denied request, and sent it to the entire county board and Nerness. She did not hear a response.

Johnson is currently unemployed and seeking a new job, possibly outside of Park Rapids.

"I would like to reemphasize that I really did enjoy my job, my coworkers and the environment. I appreciated the county's benefit and compensation package. It is really just unfortunate how things went downhill in regards to feeling valued as an employee, and how the current leadership has bred mistrust and skepticism," she said.

Tammie Roth resigned in July 2018. She worked in child support for 8.5 years, then as a chemical health social worker for the next six years.

Staff is overworked with large caseloads, Roth agreed, adding she started to experience stress-related medical issues.

When the state began requiring a licensed alcohol and drug counselor to do the assessments, Roth went back to school with Bessler's blessing. Problems arose when Roth needed to complete 880 hours of internship for her licensure. Vizecky "refused to work with me at all. She wouldn't let me adjust my hours so that I could have time. I proposed four different options for me to work and do my internship at the same time, and she denied every single one of them," Roth said.

Roth began her internship at ABC Connections in the evenings. With no help from the county or director to get licensed, she says she decided to resign from the social services department, even though it meant a pay cut.

"I don't think the county should benefit for what I worked hard outside to do myself," she said.

Linda Bair retired in June 2017, after serving 27 years with the county social services department. She started and supervised the Heartland Express Transit Program.

The number of social services employees who have quit is "outrageous," she said.

"I find it very hard to believe, as a taxpayer and former employee, that the county commissioners and human resources department basically turned a blind eye to such turnover and such exit interviews," Bair said. "That's where my big concern comes from because employees are the best asset any organization has. If you have good employees, you make sure they have what they need to do their job well. That's your job as a supervisor."

County response

Teems said that — between Dec. 12, 2016 and Dec. 12, 2018 — 22 employees have left the social services department. Twelve resigned, eight retired and two were terminated.

Teems said she was unable to respond to specific complaints due to the Minnesota Data Practices Act.

"The county takes seriously all complaints and responds as appropriate," she said.

Teems said the county follows union contract provisions, and grievances are private data.

"As part of human resources offboarding, employees are provided an exit interview form, along with an invitation to meet with the human resources director to have an exit interview. Some employees do not return the form nor request an exit interview. Some employees return the form. Some employees return the form and request an exit interview with human resources. No employee requesting an exit interview has been denied one," she said. "The commissioners have recognized exit interviews are the role of the human resources director."

When asked how much the county has spent on legal services to address union grievances in the past three years, Teems said this request would include many hours of review for data collection. Per the county's 2018 public access policy, Teems noted there would be a charge for county employee time, materials and mailing. The cost for a county employee make photocopies is $25 per hour. If a higher paid employee must search for and retrieve the data, the charges are calculated at a higher salary or wage.

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