Seventeen St. Paul pothole workers face suspensionsby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The city of St. Paul has suspended 17 public-works employees after a television news report documented street workers loafing around when they should have been filling potholes.
The exposé led to public outrage at a time when drivers were complaining about some of the worst-rutted roads in recent years.
Mayor Chris Coleman says the suspensions make up the broadest disciplinary action the city has ever taken. Still, no one was fired, and at least one union is challenging the suspensions.
An independent investigation, commissioned by the city, confirmed what the KSTP footage so clearly documented: workers who frankly weren't working.
The segment, which aired in March, showed maintenance crews hanging out at gas stations and spending more time on break than working, all the while clocking in a full day of work on the taxpayer's dime.
But city officials have since learned that the rules in place, and a lack of oversight within the public works department, helped breed a culture of inactivity, and that resulted in those extra-long lunch and bathroom breaks.
"Systems issues led to more abuse of the breaks," said Rich Lallier, who stepped in as the department's interim director to clean up the mess. "The system's problems led people to say, 'Since we can't use the equipment or the material, it's not part of our breaks or lunch periods.' And it had a snowball effect."
Mayor Chris Coleman say a host of new measures will make sure employees are making the best use of their time.
"Instead of having four people wait around for patching material to heat up, we could bring in some people in earlier, so there's no excuse for people to be waiting around," Coleman said. "So there's no confusion: 'Are you doing your job or are you not doing this job?' That should be a clear line."
Many of the changes are aimed at reducing delays faced by street-maintenance crews as they wait for equipment to be repaired or trucks to be refueled.
The city also plans to install global positioning systems into the work trucks that will not only track where the vehicles are, but whether the snowplows or sanders are actually being used. The total price tag for the GPS units is estimated at $79,000.
The city is also requiring productivity studies to better track how much asphalt is poured -- and simply how many potholes are filled. That wasn't done before, Coleman said.
The mayor says there's plenty of blame to go around, and he says he's meting out the suspensions across the entire department.
"It wasn't just the employee who wasn't patching the hole. It was their supervisor who was supposed to know what those employees were doing, and their supervisors who were supposed to be holding everyone accountable," the mayor said.
Coleman says he stopped short of firing the workers after reviewing union and civil-service policies, and taking into consideration the nature of the misconduct and the employees' work history. He says the punishment is in line with those policies.
The city's public works director did resign over the issue, but took a slightly lower-paying job in the department. Bruce Beese stepped down before the KSTP report aired in March. He now has an administrative job in the department and makes about $112,000 a year.
The 17 disciplined workers have been suspended without pay for a total of 59 days.
They can appeal the measures, and at least four workers who belong to the local laborers union are expected to do that. The identities of the workers will be disclosed after the grievance process plays out.
Attorney Gregg Corwin represents the Construction and General Laborers' Local 132. He says the workers wanted to put in a full day's work but couldn't without the proper materials or equipment.
"They had no choice because there was nothing for them to do," Corwin said.
The union filed an OSHA complaint last week protesting one of the city's new rules that limit the workers to 15-minute breaks rather than 30 minutes. Corwin says the city has not provided portable toilets or hand-washing facilities, and that requires the workers to travel to gas stations or convenience stores to use their restrooms.
Union officials also say supervisors told the workers to kill time if they ran out of material. Corwin says some of the foremen were actually with the employees who were seen slacking off on tape.
"We would ask the public to understand this was not the fault of the employees. It's easy to blame the peons. It's easy to blame people on the lowest rung of the ladder," Corwin said. "It's easy to take pictures of people and don't even do what any investigator should do, and find out why those things were happening. Those videos didn't show why it was happening, and whose fault it was."
Officials with the laborers' union acknowledge that the workers could have spoken up earlier about the problems in their work environment. But they said challenging their managers likely would have cost them their jobs.
- All Things Considered, 05/10/2010, 5:51 p.m.