April 9, 2012

A squeaky wheel, greased

"I found out what happens when you try to stand up to OFT," says former employee Leo LaMountain.

By James M. Odato  Published 09:40 p.m., Saturday, April 7, 2012
ALBANY -— Leo LaMountain may not have been cut out to be a state employee.
His bosses ended his three-year stint at the Office For Technology in January when he was terminated for insubordination. So he's out $37,800 a year, and living on weekly unemployment checks of $393, a benefit the state appealed four times.
"I found out what happens when you try to stand up to OFT," he said.
His experience in the public sector introduced him to union and government bureaucracy, he said, and the pitfalls of speaking out about co-workers napping and watching videos, and managers joining in. His abbreviated state employment followed almost four decades in the private sector in sales, home construction and printer repair jobs during which he said he was never punished for disruptive behavior.

His troubles as a state employee offer a glimpse of alleged problems at some state agencies.
"If someone from the outside could see," the 56-year-old Latham married father of two said, " you would be ashamed."
When he passed a Civil Service test to win a state position, he thought he had achieved job security that would take him to retirement. "I was naive," he says now.
An auto parts salesman for a decade and an at-large repairman of bar-code machines for an out-of-state company, LaMountain went back to school during evenings when he was in his mid-40s and trained for two years at ITT Tech for a new career, working as a laborer for a home builder during the day to pay his bills. Co-workers at various past jobs said he was solid and earnest. "An excellent, excellent worker," said Andrew Baker, who worked in sales with LaMountain at Frito-Lay. "He's one of those people who would do anything for you."
That's how his ITT Tech math teacher remembers him.
"He worked very hard," said Sharon Rice. She said he was frequently in her office for tutoring before he obtained his associate degree. "He would do whatever he needed to do. He was very personable," she said. He was one of the few students who sent her a note of appreciation for her time.
During his three-year stint keeping printers running for OFT, LaMountain said he tried to stay busy, even during down times or holidays. He found things to do, he said, such as reading or updating manuals, cleaning or maintaining machines or preparing for job upgrade tests.
It frustrated him to be surrounded by colleagues and supervisors who were unproductive and wasted taxpayers' money, he said.
"I believe in hard work," LaMountain said. "You want to be a good person, a taxpayer." Halfway into his second year of state service, LaMountain had had enough.
He complained to the Inspector General's Office in October 2009. Chief Investigator William Hebert reviewed LaMountain's letter about "an atmosphere of hostility" in the print room at the OFT's office at Harriman campus. A Jan. 5, 2010, letter from Hebert to former Chief Information Officer Melodie Mayberry-Stewart listed LaMountain's claims of being alienated by a co-worker and his concerns about people sleeping and watching movies while on duty and how the OFT's labor relations director dismissed the accusations. "This matter should be referred to your office for review and appropriate action," Hebert concluded.
Mayberry-Stewart, through an administrative assistant, wrote back five days later and said OFT had investigated LaMountain's complaints. Six people were interrogated, she reported, and three others were interviewed. Emails and electronic files were obtained, she said, spanning four different shifts at the campus data center.
"After a thorough investigation, we determined that some of Mr. LaMountain's allegations were unfounded," she wrote. "We did find evidence of administrative, behavioral and work production issues on the part of several employees, including Mr. LaMountain, and these are being addressed." She said the probe also helped OFT realize it needed to ensure that supervisors appropriately monitored staff activities and that employees are "appropriately engaged in productive work for the duration of their work shift."
According to LaMountain and records he provided from his official file, his budding career took a nosedive a few months after he started work because of problems with relationships with co-workers. At a staff meeting, he alleged that two co-workers either slept or played video games while he worked during the 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. weekend shift. He said he saw similar activity during the overlapping third shift.
A co-worker he complained about filed department charges against him, alleging that he "feared" for the safety of his family because of LaMountain. OFT investigated and found the charge "unfounded." Still, LaMountain said, most of his colleagues on the late shift shirked their duties.
"I saw all of that," said a former outside consultant who worked at OFT and supported many of LaMountain's recollections. He spoke on the condition of anonymity. "He was a really nice guy. We talked about a lot of the issues he was having before I left. He seemed like someone who was coming to work to actually do work."
LaMountain said one woman reported to the late shift carrying her pillow and bedding from home, and occasionally brought her pet Boston terrier. "She would say; "Don't wake me unless it's a dire emergency,"' LaMountain said. "She would go to the sixth floor ladies room. Her attitude was she had a second job and she needed to sleep."
He said several of his OFT colleagues had outside jobs, and many of them worked on those businesses on OFT time. In his first year, LaMountain had permission to moonlight for the bar-code repair company with which he had long been associated. But he was later barred from the private work after he began complaining about his co-workers, he said.
OFT determined that he wasn't without fault. After his complaint to the IG, it alleged he was guilty of using office resources inappropriately. He says he was found to have used the email system for personal letters, something he said was rampant. He accepted a "disciplinary fine" of $200, he said, to settle the matter. Records show OFT also included a claim that he violated the sexual harassment prevention policy, which LaMountain said involved emailing a female supervisor he fancied.
After a counseling session, he was told, according to his personnel records: "You need to worry about your own work and let the supervisors do their job. ... It is not your responsibility to address issues with what work your peers are completing or how they completed their duties. ... Your actions and behavior continue to disrupt the work environment." He was told to assume the responsibilities only of his post as a Grade 10 computer operator.
He was transferred to the day shift at the South Swan Street office of the OFT in the Department of Motor Vehicles building, but his problems followed him, according to another memo from a boss in December 2010.
"Your actions since you arrived have caused tension and conflict to the point that your coworkers don't want to work with you," the memo said. He was referred to the Employee Assistance Program for professional counseling. A psychologist who saw him twice reported that his personality is such that he is prone to interpersonal problems with coworkers and supervisors if he thinks that problems are not being addressed, but that he is able to perform his duties.
His problems continued, according to records, because of a dispute with a Xerox consultant, who, LaMountain said, was unproductive and who sometimes improperly looked at and commented about details in some of the DMV records that OFT was printing.
In a counseling session, a manager told LaMountain he made co-workers uncomfortable by his habit of staring at them. "You are creating and contributing to the tension, conflict and animosity on your current work shift," she wrote, recommending he seek EAP help.
He was sent home on Christmas Eve 2009 after emailing a letter to his Civil Service Employees Association representative, and copying supervisors, about his frustration and saying that he was infuriated by his treatment. CSEA does not discuss individual cases, a spokesman said.
By the end of 2010, LaMountain was charged with insubordination for not responding promptly to a supervisor's directive and, after a hearing, he was fired. He said a union lawyer didn't do enough to win his case, including failing to call defense witnesses. He also lost his Human Rights and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints of discrimination.
"During your short tenure of three years with state government you have been formally counseled on three occasions over a two-year period," the OFT disciplinary letter said. "Despite the intervention of several different supervisors and site managers spanning three different work shifts at two different data center sites ... you continue to engage in insubordinate and unacceptable behaviors in the work place. You do not accept any responsibility for your behavior or actions and you deflect blame onto others."
Arbitrator Lisa Turnullo weighed testimony and sided with OFT, saying it looked like LaMountain's "unsatisfactory conduct" would continue or worsen with potentially "serious consequences" and that the state had cause to fire him.
Angela Liotta, an OFT spokeswoman, said that after LaMountain first went to the IG, an in-house probe led to five employees being disciplined, including LaMountain and one manager, and two others were counseled. Liotta said "stronger internal controls were put into place so that people were doing what they were supposed to do."
She said LaMountain paid a $200 fine to settle his misuse of the email system. Four others paid higher fines, the highest being $2,000 levied against the manager. The investigation did not substantiate his allegations about sleeping, watching videos and playing video games.
In his second misconduct case, she said, LaMountain was the only one involved. That led to his suspension and termination for violating the workplace insubordination and violence rules, she said.
Michael Clarke, a spokesman for the IG, said a complaint received by his office four years before LaMountain's accusations concerned allegations at the same OFT office of beer-drinking at work and trips to a nearby bar. He said that complaint was, like LaMountain's, referred to OFT to handle.
Liotta last week was unable to say what the outcome of OFT's probe was.
LaMountain denies that he acted violently and said he was faulted for using words such as "infuriated" in an email and for not responding promptly to the directive of a supervisor.
A co-worker still at OFT, who would not allow his name to be used, said LaMountain didn't understand that employees are left alone if they do what they're told. "No one has any initiative; Leo does," he said. LaMountain, whose performance reviews were all satisfactory, said he has applied for dozens of jobs in the past three months with no luck. "I wasn't the one sleeping, watching movies," he said, shaking his head.
jodato@timesunion.com • 518-454-5083 • @JamesMOdato

1 comment:

  1. I blame the managers. As long as they allow the culture of laziness to prevail it will.

    That being said, not all state workers are lazy. I know quite a few dedicated people who really help those who they serve.

    Change must come from top down in this case. Managers need to understand that even with unions and tenure, the bad worker can be dismissed. It just takes time and energy from the supervisor.

    If they don't want to do it, they only encourage more of the same.


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