A day after the Fourth of July, fireworks were still flying at City Council, as council member and utilities committee chair Joe Brown exploded at MLGW president Joseph Lee. Brown denounced Lee's leadership in no uncertain terms, saying that the utility chief was "circumventing the council" in various hiring and operational practices. Brown also cited numerous MLGW employee complaints that accused the utility of harassment.
Brown told the Flyer that complaints about intimidation had been made by employees in the customer accounts department against that department's three-member leadership team - Sonja Chandler, Brenda Chism, and Eliza King. Council member Carol Chumney also heard from those employees. The customer accounts department has more than 200 employees and is charged with sending out utility bills.
"I've been told by [these employees] that MLGW has become a hostile work environment," said Brown. "And the leadership over there has done nothing to help these people. It's nothing new; this has been going on a long time."
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union business manager Rick Thompson agrees. As the union representative for many MLGW employees, Thompson has been involved with ongoing employee grievances. "One of the main concerns the employees have is they feel that they are not being heard, and their complaints are not being dealt with in a timely manner," he said.
"I would say there is an overall management problem at MLGW, because proper procedures are not being followed," said union steward and 31-year MLGW employee Ruth Taylor. Taylor alledged that employee complaints have become backlogged, violating the timeline outlined in the union's memorandum of understanding with the company. She added that after complaints are filed, employees face retaliation.
As the union steward for the account services department, Taylor registers complaints for unhappy employees. "When a complaint is filed, the same person handles grievances and EEC (equal employment compliance). It's like facing the judge and jury at the same time. How can [MLGW] do that?"
MLGW officials said grievances and EEC compliance are handled by the same person because they are the responsibilities of the vice-president of human resources. Responding to Brown's charges, utility spokesperson Mark Heuberger said that only one person had filed a grievance in the customer accounts department in the previous 30 days. "Eleven people signed on to that grievance, but it was not about harassment, it was about the work standards that were raised by the supervisory group," he said.
Heuberger acknowledged that some of the complaints could have been filed directly with the federal EEOC office and bypassed the MLGW's EEC office. Grievance information filed with the federal EEOC is kept confidential.
"I am shocked by that," said Taylor about Heuberger's explanation of a single filing. "At last count, a total of 33 grievances had been filed since May 2004, and that's just in my department. I can't even speak for any other area." Taylor's records indicate three grievances filed within the last 30 days, including a complaint on July 1st about a strict new disciplinary action rule.
Heuberger said the new disciplinary policy is part of Lee's performance standards. But Taylor said the new penalties for "minor infractions" are more like retaliation. "As part of the strategic plan and balanced score card, this [management] team has been developing and implementing performance measures, and apparently there is some resistance to some standards," said Heuberger.
Although union grievances at a company the size of MLGW are not unusual, it is unusual for them to come before the City Council. "We tried to handle them through proper protocol," said Taylor, "but after a year of nothing being done, the employees were frustrated and that's when they made their concerns public."
In addition to complaining to City Council members, employees have taken their concerns to a contingent of local pastors.
"[Joseph Lee] is a guy I went to bat for, the guy I voted for," said Brown. "He has really let me down. He's got to help these people." n