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Wednesday, April 4, 2007 02:33 pm

Scapegoats?

Public works employees punished after snowstorm

Untitled Document With scores of city employees facing discipline for an alleged work stoppage during the mid-February winter storm, at least a dozen snowplow drivers say they’re being made scapegoats for the city’s bungled handling of the snow removal. Some 30 or 40 “truck driver laborers,” or TDLs — some with lengthy and unblemished work histories — are being docked one day’s pay for not hitting the streets in their big red trucks on the morning of Feb. 16. The TDLs insist that, rather than refusing to work, they were confused by a lack of direction from public-works officials and union leaders. Those officials insist that the TDLs should have handled their confusion by working first and asking questions later. Few players on either side agreed to be quoted by name. The TDLs are charged with a variety of violations, including incompetence, failure to obey a reasonable direction, failure to follow department work rules, disorderly conduct, insubordination, impeding work, and violation of their AFSCME union contract. Under terms of the disciplinary agreement, the TDLs were offered the chance to essentially plead guilty and accept a one-day suspension, waiving all rights to file a grievance or lawsuit and pledging to “keep this resolution confidential and not discuss the terms of this Resolution. . . . ”
TDLs who opt to refuse the deal face suspensions ranging from 15 to 30 days or, if they already had marks on their records, more severe discipline. On the day in question, Springfield was still blanketed in about a foot of snow, but none of it was fresh. According to the National Weather Service, Springfield received a combined total of 11.2 inches of snow Feb. 12 and Feb. 13 but no additional snow on the next two days. City crews were put on “snow alert” on Feb. 12 and worked around the clock in 12-hour shifts, 7 a.m.-7 p.m. and 7 p.m.-7 a.m. On Feb. 15, however, the night crew was not called in to work. When they reported to the garage at 7 the next morning, they did not expect to be sent out on the streets, according to 12 workers interviewed by Illinois Times.
“We pretty much had it cleared up Wednesday night [Feb. 14],” said one snowplow driver. The issue was clouded by an inclement-weather clause in the workers’ union contract specifying that they would not be automatically be sent to work when the temperature dipped to 12 degrees or lower. According to the contract, whenever the temperature was below 12, “the decision whether or not employees . . . will work . . . will be made by the judgment of the Superintendent upon conferring with the designated Union representative.” On Feb. 16, National Weather Service records indicate that the temperature was 11 below zero — or 23 degrees colder than the cutoff stated in the inclement-weather clause. The snowplow drivers had already spent several days working in temperatures below 12 degrees. On Feb. 14, the average temperature was 10; on February 15, it was 3. The TDLs say they never hesitated to work on those days because they were in “snow mode,” working around the clock. After the split shifts were halted, when the night crew was not called in on Feb. 15, they assumed that the “snow alert” had ended and that they had returned to normal operating procedures. That situation triggered discussion of the inclement-weather clause. Their union president, Norm Howard, met on Feb. 16 with their superintendent and other managers. When he emerged from the meeting, the TDLs say, Howard appeared angry and upset, then got in his red dump truck and drove away, ignoring calls to his cell phone and his two-way radio. Howard declined to comment on the record for this story. Tom McLaughlin, regional director for AFSCME, also declined to discuss what happened on Feb. 16, but he acknowledges problems. He met with the TDLs this week to try to clarify “misunderstandings.”
“I think there are some who would say they did get good direction from Norm Howard,” he says. “Certainly not everybody, but some knew the contract language and responded. I wasn’t there that morning. All I can say is, communication can be improved and will be improved.”
Mike Norris, director of public works for the city of Springfield, did not return calls seeking comment this week. Ernie Slottag, communications director for Springfield, said city policy prohibits him from commenting on personnel matters.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com
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