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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

State Workers Union Alleges Retaliation By Management

John Howe is pictured in a VSEA Facebook post.

John Howe has spent 18 years in state government helping disabled and financially needy clients find employment, medical care and shelter. He earned an “excellent” rating in his last employment review, and even got a $500 merit bonus.

So when Howe was abruptly placed on paid administrative leave late last month from his position as a  counselor at the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, he says he could attribute the sanctions to only one thing.

“I think that management would like me to go away, and so the investigation is part of a fishing expedition to try to build a case for termination, trying to accumulate enough small things – you know, haven’t got this paper work done here or there – to make the case, to quiet me,” Howe said Wednesday.

Howe is a shop steward for the union, as well as a member of its board of trustees. And he went before the Legislature earlier this year to express his concern about the state’s use of poorly paid contractors to perform work at a division commonly known as VocRehab.

“And since then, there have been a series of steps for me in my workplace that have gotten increasingly more difficult,” Howe says.

The situation culminated when Howe received a March 28 letter from Diane Dalmasse, the director of his division, informing him he’d been “hereby temporarily relieved from duty.” Howe’s transgressions, according to Dalmasse’s letter, came in the form of “authorizing non-State employees to sign State documents on your behalf and permitting a non-State employee to access your state cellular telephone.”

The order arrived about a week after Howe met with other union officials at the VSEA’s headquarters in Montpelier. During the meeting, Howe and others spoke with Susan Wehry, commissioner of the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living, about fears of retaliation from supervisors under her command.

“I think that the issue that management is trying to do is to make an example of me so that people don’t speak out, that they’re too afraid to speak out,” Howe said.

As for the allegations, Howe says he’s guilty of nothing more than what is common practice among other people in his position. Howe oversees a caseload of 250 clients, which he does alongside two contractors from the Vermont Association of Business Industry and Rehabilitation – the labor source he’d testified critically about in January.

Howe says he’d allowed those VABIR employees to fill out purchase orders for things like bus tickets and phone cards for clients – all in support of the mission of finding them work. And he says he’d allowed a VABIR contractor to answer his state-issued cell phone while he was meeting with clients, so that other VocRehab clients would be able to get through to a live voice while he was occupied.

Howe says in his office of four people – him, two VABIR employees and a volunteer – there weren’t any other state employees to whom he could hand off that kind of paperwork.

At about the same time Howe was placed on leave, his VABIR colleagues were fired.

Jeb Spaulding, secretary of the Agency of Administration, says the Shumlin administration doesn’t tolerate retaliation against its employees “under any circumstances.”

“We completely respect our employees’ rights to do what they want to do on their own time, to participate in union acts to the extent they want to,” Spaulding says.

Spualding says he’s disappointed that Howe and the VSEA would speak publicly with only circumstantial evidence of wrongdoing.

The VSEA went public with the episode earlier this week by launching a special Facebook page dedicated to Howe. Shortly after, Howe received a letter telling him the department had “since re-evaluated this decision and determined it is in the best interest of the Department to have you return to work, effective April 14, 2014.”

Spaulding says the state continues to investigate the allegations against Howe, and that the administration is also looking into Howe’s claims of retaliatory behavior perpetrated against him. Spaulding says he’s seen nothing yet to indicate that Howe’s supervisors have done anything wrong.

“You know, to say some action on an employee is a result of their union activities, is not enough. I mean they’re not related at all. They might not be related at all,” Spaulding says.

Howe says the episode has been unnerving, and that he feels especially bad about the fate of his VABIR colleagues, who don’t have a union to challenge their dismissals. He says he’s also worried about his clients, about half of whom he says are homeless. VocRehab has since moved his office from Pearl Street to Cherry Street.

Howe makes little attempt to hide his disregard for management. He says the offices were relocated “without any kind of transition plan, without the consideration of how clients’ service would be, but just blindly, let’s move the whole program.”

“And to me that speaks volumes about the management’s lack of concern for our clients,” Howe says.

Howe’s persistent issues with management were spotlighted in the same performance review in which he was rated “excellent” – one notch below the top score of “outstanding.”

The evaluation said that while Howe took feedback well from his peers, “if a message is coming from managers or ‘up above’ … you do not take it well.” Suggestions included he “use passion and energy to help grow a teaming environment in your local office as opposed to fostering a divide with management.”

Howe says the state’s actions have steeled his resolve to bring into the light what he says are systemic management problems at VocRehab.

“Part of me kind of gets kind of much more committed to what is good governance and what is transparency, and committed to ensuring that state employees – they may be the public’s best eyes and ears on the ground to ensure the integrity of good government,” Howe says. “On the other hand, I personally am worried about, you know, paying my mortgage.”

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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