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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  Overcast
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'A hostile work environment'
State workers union sounds an alarm about KIDS Project
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Left to right: Stewards Blascoe, Franks and Klein.
Left to right: Stewards Blascoe, Franks and Klein.
Credit:Mary Langenfeld

Phil Klein recalls his reaction as the tales flowed in, one after another: 'I thought, 'What? Would I ever hate working there!''

Klein is a union steward for Wisconsin Professional Employees Council AFT Local 4848, which represents state workers, including some within the KIDS Information System Data Project, located in the GEF 1 state office building. This unit, which processes child-support payments, is in his view 'a hostile work environment.' Recently, the union issued an extraordinary warning to other state employees to avoid working there.

'Don't apply for KIDS Project,' declares an item by steward Ron Blascoe in the union's newsletter. 'Over the past two years members have been fired, made to fail probation, driven into retirement, put on concentrated performance evaluations and disciplined by overzealous managers.'

This summer, the union surveyed the unit's 35 workers, garnering 24 responses. It found widespread concern about micromanagement and favoritism. Thirty percent of the respondents 'said they were actively looking for another job, and nearly half said they had actually applied for another job,' according to the union's report. More than half ' 57% ' did not expect to stay with the unit through retirement.

Armed with these findings, Klein and fellow steward Bill Franks met with top brass within the Department of Workforce Development, which includes KIDS. They laid out their concerns and made suggestions for improvements. But, they say, no visible changes ensued. As Blascoe puts it, 'nothing gets fixed, and nothing gets better.'

The union also met recently with state Department of Employment Relations officials, including Secretary Karen Timberlake. Timberlake says the union was short on specifics and feels the matter is probably best addressed within DWD, although 'I'm open to receiving further information.'

Last week, Klein filed a grievance with Timberlake's office itemizing problems within the KIDS unit. It says workers are 'encouraged to spy on each other' and that management engages in 'obviously excessive' checking on employees, including 'obnoxious, intimidating peering over cubicle walls.' It charges that management violates state policies on sick leave and comp time, and favors certain workers.

The 18-point grievance also charges that KIDS managers discourage even nominal socializing, saying one told workers at a large meeting, 'I don't give a shit what you did last weekend.' (For the union survey and grievance, see this column at TheDailyPage.com.)

Former KIDS employee Jerome Vandre left a year ago, due in part to workplace pressures. 'The micromanagement drove me crazy,' he says. 'It got to the point where I would spend at least an hour a day just covering my butt, documenting everything I did.' Vandre says the unit has 'lost a lot of talent' because of frustration with management.

None of the unit's current employees were willing to talk, even on condition of anonymity. The union reps cite a high level of fear and intimidation; one KIDS worker was purportedly forced to resign just last week.

The stewards trace the alleged hyper-surveillance and favoritism to Gayle Hanson, a KIDS unit section chief. 'The Hanson Machine,' says Franks, 'is churning employees up and spitting them out whenever it pleases.'

Hanson declined to comment, referring Isthmus to DWD spokeswoman Rose Lynch, who provided a statement saying 'DWD's top priority is service to our customers,' for which it relies 'on an effective, dedicated staff.' It concluded, '[W]e will continue to work to make sure that all employees provide their best work.'

That's the official response. No acknowledgement of any problem. No pledge to take seriously any concerns. No wonder the union is urging workers to stay away.

Lawyers, sums and monkeys

Last week, a Dane County judge held Roger Charly to his original agreement to sell a building between the UW-Madison's two main primate research centers to animal rights activists. An unreported aspect of this ruling is that Charly, the owner of Budget Bikes, was ordered to pay the other side's legal fees, on top of his own.

That would significantly reduce the $675,000 he stands to gain from selling to activists, who hope to site an exhibition hall there highlighting the horrors of primate research. That's ironic since Charly's sought to break the deal to make more money, after the UW offered $1 million.

Rick Bogle of the Primate Freedom Project says his side has already incurred nearly $100,000 in legal costs. Charly calls this 'less than I thought, given the lawyer bills on my side,' which he allows are higher. And the case is headed for reconsideration and appeal, which could add tens of thousands of dollars to Charly's potential loss.

'That's where I sit ' between a rock and a hard place,' says Charly, sighing. 'That's the reason people should talk to each other and not [bring in] the lawyers.'

On the other hand, if Charly wins, he'll be able to sell the property to the UW for $1 million and avoid paying the other side's legal fees. According to his attorney, Allen Arntsen, Charly could also then recover his own, under a provision in the original pact that says the losing party in any dispute must pay the other's legal fees. That would leave the activists with no building and hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses.

Arntsen contends that while the option to buy was revoked, the provision on legal fees is 'still in force.' Attorney Kendall Harrison, who represents the activists, rejects this interpretation. If Charly wins, he says, it will be because a court deems 'there was never a binding agreement'; hence, the provision for recovery of legal fees could not be enforced. That would mean Charly could sell to the UW, but his legal fees would gobble up much of his hoped-for gain.

Charly, for his part, regrets the whole mess. He says the university and activists 'both make very good arguments, and I wish I wasn't in the middle of it. I wish both sides could win.' There's little chance of that.

On a related topic...

Primates Inc., a local nonprofit that hopes to open a sanctuary where older and/or distressed research animals can live out their lives in relative peace, is planning a major fund-raiser.

'Pensions for Primates,' a benefit and silent auction, will be held at the High Noon Saloon on Sunday, Dec. 17, from 4:30 to 8 p.m. A $5 suggested donation includes live music from Yid Vicious and Mama Digdown's Brass Band. And the Mad Rollin' Dolls will be on hand to help out.

'We haven't received major funding yet, and I am still pursuing land,' says group founder Amy Kerwin, a former UW-Madison primate researcher, 'but we will keep working at it until something comes to fruition.'

Moving Fairward

The battle is over but the struggle continues. Fair Wisconsin, which spearheaded the unsuccessful campaign to beat back the state constitutional amendment banning civil unions and same-sex marriage, has been asking supporters for feedback, including an online survey.

Already, says group spokesman Josh Freker, some themes have emerged: 'People definitely remain very energized and are looking for ways to keep things moving.' The group, formed to fight the amendment, will likely continue to exist and could subsume the name, functions and tax status of its sponsor, Wisconsin Action.

'People want there to continue to be a group that works for all LGBT people and their families,' says Freker, who thinks the group could branch out into direct advocacy on legislation, perhaps even forming a PAC to support candidates.

Freker has heard rumblings of the sort raised in a recent Isthmus column ' that the group undermined its cause by appealing to the middle rather than insisting on equal rights. But he disagrees: 'We definitely saw discomfort with gay marriage within the electorate, and I don't think we could have won over a majority with that message alone.'

Oh, ye of loose faith!

From a statement released last week by Madison mayoral candidate Ray Allen: 'The sluggish response from City Hall to this problem has caused the public to loose faith in the Water Utility.'

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