More settlements with state employees emerge

Agency of Transportation worker

Since 2007 the state of Vermont has spent almost $1 million on settlement claims with state workers involving misconduct, sexual harassment, discrimination, or wrongful dismissal.

A table obtained by VTDigger from the state’s insurance manager, the Office of Risk Management, shows there have been at least 21 cases over the last five years in which the state has brokered a financial deal with an employee to avoid potential litigation.

The largest settlement, $300,000, was paid in October 2008 to an Agency of Transportation employee to settle claims over gender discrimination. The smallest settlement was $475, a payment made in 2008 to another transportation worker.

Putting these settlements into context is complicated. The document obtained by VTDigger, included at the bottom of this story, lists cases where fees for damages were paid to employees through the state’s insurance programs. Cases where a department restored past wages or vacation time owed, or paid for a settlement using its own resources, are not included.

A human rights advocate and a state human resources lawyer said there could be more cases than those listed here.

Steve Collier, a lawyer for the Department of Human Resources, declined to comment on the significance of the $1 million figure, except to say the state approached the cases conservatively and tried to avoid litigation.

“Nobody that I work with ever wants to spend any of the state’s money to settle something. We like to pay people for doing their work. We don’t like to pay people money to settle something,” said Collier. “But I think, in general, the work we do saves the state far, far more money than it costs the state.”

When public funds are expended on a settlement, the amount is a matter of public record, Collier said. The state prohibits confidentiality agreements barring employees from discussing the matter.

State employees, however, can’t detail the disputes because they often pertain to sensitive personnel matters. The Vermont State Employees Association declines to comment on individual settlements, for the same reason.

Gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock’s records request last week sparked interest in the settlements.

“We know this is just a subset of what’s been paid out,” Brock said. “This really begs the question of: What is all this for and how much more is there?”

Robert Appel, director of the state’s Human Rights Commission, criticized the state as an imperfect employer, and he pointed up inadequate training of supervisors as one key problem. The commission investigates cases of discrimination against state employees, including sexual harassment and wrongful dismissal.

“There are two ways to look at this,” Appel said. “First, the state is a large employer: It’s inevitable to have such claims. Second, and in my view, a more accurate perception, the state could certainly do better in its human resources practices. Sometimes it comes up short, and sometimes it’s held to account. Sometime it’s not.”

In Appel’s experience, the most frequent complaints and settlements are claims about harassment and failure to promote employees, on the basis of sex or race, alongside complaints from disabled employees, alleging that employers aren’t making reasonable efforts to accommodate their disabilities.

He pointed out the Agency of Transportation and the Department of Corrections, as recurring problem areas, largely because their workforces are dominated by men. The transportation agency and corrections department account for four settlements, slightly more than the one or two scattered across other departments.

“Extra care has to be given when you have gross racial or gender disparities in the workplace,” said Appel. “I’m not sure the state is as attentive to that as they should be or could be.”

Agency of Transportation Secretary Brian Searles attributed more settlements under his agency due to its size, which is one of the state’s largest with about 1,300 employees. A gender imbalance in staffing, he said, could trigger more gender discrimination settlements.

Searles couldn’t comment on the agency’s settlement with Maureen McCaffrey because he wasn’t familiar with the details of her case. McCaffrey was the only woman working in a Morrisville garage. She was harassed by male co-workers and held back from promotion because of her gender, according to Appel, whose commission investigated her case.

Former Gov. Jim Douglas, on whose watch many settlements occurred, said the number of settlements is a function of the size of state government.

“With any group with large numbers of employees, there are going to be issues that require this kind of resolution,” said Douglas. ”It’s just the nature of employment in a large organization.”

“It’s hard to say if the public should be concerned about it,” continued Douglas. “Like any public expenditure, it needs to be monitored if it gets out of hand. The state needs to control all expenditures, especially in a time of limited resources.”

But he believed state money spent on such settlements pale in comparison to many other state expenditures.

“Unfortunately, in these cases, the state needs to make a business decision as to whether the cost of fighting a personnel dispute is worth it or whether the taxpayers’ best interest is served by settling,” concluded Douglas. “We live in very litigious times.”

Here’s the table.!120&authkey=!AG5moonJehqU5VM

Nat Rudarakanchana

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