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DPR employees file grievance over working conditions
Published Wednesday, October 9, 2019
by Maria Magher, Correspondent

DURHAM – Durham Parks and Recreation employees have filed a formal complaint through the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union about hostile working conditions that have led to high turnover rates and a shortage of staff, which they also believe is putting children in after school and summer camp programs at risk.

Union representatives and DPR employees held a press conference last week in front of City Hall to announce their concerns, and 17 employees signed a letter that was delivered to City Manager Tom Bonfield outlining those concerns and the actions that employees want taken to address the problem.

The chief concern in the letter is the lack of a formal grievance process for employees when they are improperly evaluated or disciplined.  Sarah Vukelich, a DPR recreation specialist and a steward for the union, said the union has been working on this problem on behalf of workers throughout the city for several years now, but issues at DPR brought the issue to a head recently, prompting the press conference and letter.

“As a union, we’ve been calling for the city to implement a fair grievance process, and we’ve been very specific about that, and we’ve been calling for that for a long time,” Vukelich said.

The union began looking into the problems at DPR after a complaint brought to them by Kellie McLean, a recreation specialist in the school-aged care unit who works with special needs teens ages 13 to 21.

McLean said she filed a complaint in January 2018 over what she believed was a wrongful evaluation. She said she included evidence contradicting information in the evaluation. In response, McLean said her manager began acting more hostile toward her, giving her more tasks, setting deadlines and then putting obstacles in the way, and even yelling at her in the middle of meetings.

McLean then took her complaint to human resources, who turned the complaint back over to her manager. Her manager and the assistant director required her to see a therapist for what they saw as stress over the job.

“The therapist was like, ‘I don’t even know why you’re here. You seem to have a healthy outlook; you enjoy your job,’” McLean said. “I’ve been to a lot of doctors’ appointments since. I’ve had a lot of chest pains because of the constant stress and the worrying.”

McLean has worked for DPR for three years, and she said her current supervisor came into the role about a year and a half ago. During that time, 11 full-time staff members quit because of the hostile work environment created.

“The supervisor will flaunt the attitude of ‘You can get fired,’ and would threaten to blacklist people if they wouldn’t do certain tasks,” McLean said. “Upper management has done nothing but support the supervisor in their actions, and HR has done nothing but turn a blind eye and protect management.”

The programs were short-staffed, McLean said, and employees would often work 11- to 12-hour shifts with no breaks. Some would also spend their own money on materials for programs, she said. Over time, the problems were about more than employee satisfaction; they threatened the safety of the children in the programs, McLean said.

“With the high turnover rate, we’re not able to offer quality programming because we’re so short staffed,” she said. Poor decisions were also made. “One staff member had a child who said they were going to commit suicide, and management said to put the kid back in the group since they just wanted attention.”

McLean would not name her supervisor or the person in charge of her supervisor. The DPR website lists Danielle Haynes as the care program administrator, which includes after school, intersession and summer camp programming.

After facing backlash from her initial complaint and with concerns about the continuing problems at DPR, McLean went to the union in August. Union representatives began investigating, and many more employees came forward with similar complaints. Now, the union is pressing the city for action.

“We want an outside agency to come in and investigate the several complaints and reports that have come in from 15 to 17 people past and present,” McLean said. “We would like for misleading and false statements and evaluations to be removed from people’s files. We would like a fair grievance policy when we are wrongfully disciplined. We don’t have a grievance unless we are terminated.”

She added that workers are “asking for disciplinary action up to termination for the supervisor and the assistant director.”

DPR employees and the union said Bonfield immediately turned the letter over to human resources as a personnel matter. “Obviously, if he read the letter, human resources has not looked into the things they need to look into,” Vukelich said. She said that the city needs an outside force, and “what we need is stronger structures and accountability between the city manager and HR, and the city workers and the supervisors.”

When asked for comment about the letter, Bonfield said: “You are correct that the city has received a complaint from DPR employees. This is a personnel matter that is under review; however, it is protected by personnel privacy, and, as a result, I am not at liberty to discuss any details with you at this time.”

The human resources department did not respond to requests for comment.

“We have gotten on the city council’s radar to try and come and sit in on one of their meetings so the public can know because taxpayer money is being mismanaged due to lack of quality programming and being short staffed,” McLean said.



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