Thursday, December 1, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Union protests some new HR rules

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has expressed concern about language in proposed amendments to the city’s policy regarding discrimination, harassment, retaliation and employee conduct.

The rules opposed by the union, which represents city employees, include language that would govern employee conduct outside the workplace, even when an employee is off duty, if the “conduct is related to or relevant to an employee’s job.”

AFSCME business manager Carol Guthrie has written a letter asking City Council to remove that language. “We oppose any oversight of the private lives of employees in situations that have no impact on an employee’s ability to perform his or her job,” she wrote.

Longtime AFSCME representative Jack Kirfman told the Austin Monitor, “The language makes it almost to where the private time of an employee is subject to scrutiny.” It would be as if “they’re not ever off duty. It could even impact them … going to an after-work happy hour.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who sponsored a resolution last spring asking the manager to review and update the city’s policies on harassment and retaliation, said Wednesday she plans to offer an amendment that would delete the language about off-duty conduct.

Tovo said she has not had an opportunity to hear why human resources staff was proposing that particular language. She said, “I believe AFSCME has raised some important concerns, (but) I’m eager to see the revision move forward” without that particular section.

Council Member Leslie Pool also expressed concern about the language. She said she does not want the city to interfere in the private actions of employees. “We need to make sure we are clear what the lines are … so people don’t think they’re going to be spied upon or the city is sending someone out to see if they’re in a bar.”

Tovo and Pool both pointed out that the city will be doing a rewrite of the entire personnel policy handbook in the near future. Both anticipated a lengthy conversation about the rules at today’s Council meeting.

Later this month, members of the Council Audit and Finance Committee are also anticipating a report from a contractor hired to look at discrimination and retaliation at the city, and how the city handles such complaints.

Pool noted that she was hired by the Texas Department of Transportation in the 1990s to rewrite the department’s employee handbook, and she has also worked for the Texas Employment Commission on similar issues. She said she believes it has been about 20 years since the city undertook a complete rewrite of its personnel policies.

Although Council gave the direction to staff to rewrite the rules before it became apparent that there was sexual harassment and retaliation occurring at a supervisory level in the Neighborhood Housing and Community Affairs Department, it seems clear that some of the rules have been written with that conduct in mind.

Kirfman said he was familiar with the situation at NHCD but that the new rules would not have solved the problems. “If you have a manager that’s harassing people,” he said, but that person’s supervisor “just throws (the complaint) in the trash, it doesn’t matter what kind of rules you have.”

“That was piss poor management,” he said, referring to the NHCD situation. Kirfman said he was personally familiar with the situation and with “one lady who left because of it. She got nowhere with reporting it and finally left, and she was a good employee.”

This story has been changed following publication to correct a typo in the second paragraph. The rules are opposed by the union, not proposed. Photo by That Other Paper made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

AFSCME: the union for municipal workers. Local, Austin regional chapter, 1624, dates to 1969.

Austin Human Resources Department: This city department oversees city employees, who number over 12,000 strong.