Kate Duffy, commissioner of the state’s Human Resources Department, is stepping down to help Attorney General Bill Sorrell defend Vermont’s new GMO labeling law.
Duffy has headed the Department of Human Resources since 2011. She’ll take a short break before starting her new post Aug. 11, according to Jeb Spaulding, the secretary of the Agency of Administration. A new commissioner has not been named.
Duffy served as an assistant attorney general for six years before she was appointed deputy commissioner of Human Resources in 2009, according to a release from Sorrell’s office.
“My administration was lucky to have Kate’s professionalism and energy on our team for three and a half years,” said Gov. Peter Shumlin. “We will miss her, but I am thrilled she is joining the attorney general’s office and will be helping to defend our new law requiring labeling of food produced with genetic engineering.”
Spaulding said the administration will search for a new HR commissioner with a strong background in human resources and professional development.
He said Duffy was hired at a time when centralizing HR policies and procedures was a priority.
“It used to be that various agencies had their own HR staff and their policies were different from one department to another. Employees often felt they were not treated equally,” Spaulding said. “The administration felt better if there were some uniformity across state government. Kate was instrumental in making that happen.”
During her tenure there were tensions between the Department of Human Resources and the 5,400-member Vermont State Employees Association.
VSEA officials say morale has plunged over the course of Duffy’s time in office. Employee grievances are met with retaliation, officials say, and grievance investigations have taken a prosecutorial tone.
A pending lawsuit brought against Duffy and six other management staff, plus four state departments, showcases their complaints. John Howe, a state employee, sued state officials for violating Vermont’s whistleblower protection law. Howe also serves as a trustee for VSEA’s non-management unit.
“My case is not atypical, except that I happen to have stood up and said, ‘This is not right,’” Howe said.
Shumlin said Monday, just hours before the announcement of Duffy’s departure, that he thinks his administration has worked better with the union “than probably any administration in recent memory.”
“There will always be some issues between management and employee,” Shumlin said. “But I’m proud of the fact that we’ve worked together collaboratively to make sure that hard-working state employees are fairly reimbursed.”
Spaulding touted Duffy’s efforts to move VSEA members to a new prescription drug plan that saves the state money.
Steve Howard, VSEA’s new executive director, said the union and the department have fought over some issues and collaborated on others.
He said administration officials, including Duffy, have said retaliation is not tolerated.
“But the practice our members experience on the ground is very different, so that’s why we really have to stand up and defend them,” Howard said.
Duffy was out of the office Monday and could not be reached for comment.