You’re never alone when the union is with you
By SHERRY HALBROOK
PEF’s professional members strive to provide the services and care that their clients need, but sometimes the harder they try, the less appreciative the management at their agency may be.
That was the dilemma for a PEF member and state employee of 18 years, who was trying to meet the needs of a client with a history of demanding a lot of time and extra attention from the professional staff assigned to her case. The member was shocked in August 2017 to be placed on administrative leave. More than four months later he was interrogated and then charged by the Justice Center for People with Special Needs. Then he received a notice of discipline in May 2018 from his employer that sought to fire him.
Fortunately, the PEF member was neither alone nor defenseless in facing this challenge. He had the protections and due process rights that are spelled out in the PS&T contract and he had PEF professional staff to stand by and defend him.
“I could not have gotten through this by myself. Without the union, they would have gotten rid of me,” the member said. “When I received the notice of administrative leave, I didn’t know what that meant and my agency didn’t even tell me why. I started cleaning out my desk, because I thought I was going home and I would never be back. But when I talked to my PEF field representative Blair Burroughs on the phone, he told me, ‘Calm down. Just go home and take it easy.’
“By the time the charges against me were filed, Blair had been transferred to a different PEF office and was no longer involved,”
The PEF Membership Benefits Program provided him a lawyer to represent him in fighting the Justice Center charges.
His employer suspended him without pay and as his case moved through the grievance process over the summer and PEF associate counsel Linda Keller began defending the member from termination.
“Linda listened very carefully to me. She asked the right questions and she understood my answers,” the member said. “I never said I was perfect. I was just a guy in a tough situation doing the best I could. At one point the state offered me money (a financial settlement), but I wasn’t looking for a quick settlement. I wanted vindication more than anything else, and Linda understood that. She was a very strong advocate for me. I was totally impressed with her and liked her. She treated me as a person. I have a lot of lawyers in my family and they kept telling me to hire a high powered outside lawyer, but I said, ‘No. I need a union lawyer who’s familiar with our contract and this process.”
The case went before arbitrator James S. Cooper in August and extensive evidence and testimony were presented at a series of four hearings that were held monthly through October, with post-hearing briefs and additional documentation submitted in January 2019.
In March of this year, Cooper awarded his decision that dismissed each of the five charges against the PEF member. Cooper ruled that the member “is not guilty of the charges as described in the Notice of Discipline;” the employer “did not have probable cause to suspend” the member; and the agency “shall reinstate (him) to his former position without loss of seniority and with full back pay and benefits.”
The member is currently attending training as requested by his employer before going back to work.
Keller said this member is a dedicated professional “who has decades of experience working with child and adolescent patients. The charges against him appear to have arisen from nothing more than rumors. However, his professional reputation and ultimately his livelihood were on the line.
“The Justice Center was involved in this matter, and Justice Center counsel was dogged in her pursuit of these charges against him,” Keller said. “Through the hard work of preparation, four days of hearing, and the cooperation of two of his fellow PEF member-colleagues to testify to his dedication to helping the patient at issue in the charges, we were able to show the arbitrator the truth behind the baseless rumors.
“This member was always engaged in his defense and grateful for our help,” Keller added. “I am pleased that my work was able to reveal the truth and that this professional public employee was exonerated.”
For his part, the member said, “I always liked being in the union, but now I’m a major cheerleader. I really needed help, and the union was there for me.”