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April 23, 2011

19

Part 3 of Special Report: Employees say safety issues ignored

by Deena Winter
Roger Helmick shows where his former coworker Eric Kohles was mowing when the mower somehow tipped over onto him in a drainage ditch.

PART THREE IN A SERIES OF STORIES
BY DEENA WINTER

The streets division is overseen by a man who was brought in to clean up the place about three years ago: Scott Opfer.

Before Opfer got the job, he oversaw a different division of public works, traffic operations. One day in 2008, City Engineer Roger Figard asked for a meeting with the street maintenance laborers’ union head, Jeff Stump, and the union’s attorney, Gary Young.

Figard told Young he wanted to help fix the streets division, and had just the guy to do it: Opfer. He asked the union to cooperate with Opfer, to make things easier.

Opfer would now oversee both traffic and streets. He went from supervising about 25 employees to about 125. Right away, Opfer met with all the street employees and told them he would reform the place and have an open-door policy. He assured them he would protect the anonymity of employees and protect them from retaliation.

“The employees actually believed him,” Young said in an interview.

During that meeting, a couple of employees expressed concern about unsafe, old mowers like the Heckendorn mower – an old three-wheeled mower that tipped easily, had no roll cage, didn’t always turn right and was too high off the ground to stop from tipping with your feet. The department had modified it by removing large wings on the mower, making it unstable and easier to flip, according to the workers.

“This thing was a disaster in every way you can imagine,” Young said. “Opfer promised them he’d look into it.”

Some middle managers at the meeting disagreed, arguing the Heckendorn was safe. After the meeting, two of the men who had complained were headed out on a mowing job when they were told to go back to the main streets office at 901 N. Sixth St. and mow a huge, flat compound. They were told since they “don’t like the Heckendorn,” they could use push mowers. Young said they mowed four or five acres with 1980s era push mowers in the blistering heat. They said two supervisors drove by, laughing at them.

Opfer said he didn’t order them to push-mow the compound and in any case it wasn’t unusual for the compound to be mowed with push mowers.

Trouble on the Streets of Lincoln -- a Special Report. Illustration: Idea go

Opfer has worked for the city for 26 years, and before he took over street maintenance, he’d heard stories about bullying and intimidation going on there.

“I have no doubt there were things that have gone on in the past,” Opfer said. “I’ve tried to promote management treating people fairly.”

He said he thinks he’s made progress on issues such as promotions. Laborers say managers promote people from “the family.” Opfer said he stopped that by sitting in on every promotional interview.

However, he said bullying is happening on both sides — both managers and laborers do it, particularly members of the blue-collar union, the Public Association of Government Employees, or PAGE. The middle managers are also members of a union, the Lincoln City Employees Association, or LCEA.

“Some union representatives do much more bullying than management does,” Opfer said in an interview Thursday. He said some PAGE members complain to him about the very laborers who are accusing managers of bullying. One employee recently talked to him about it during their basketball league, he said.

He said some of the laborers have done the same things they accuse supervisors of doing – such as showing coworkers sexually explicit images, as one worker, Ron Null, got fired for in 2008. But Opfer said he didn’t do anything about those other cases he’s because he would have been accused of retaliation.

“I’ve been walking on eggshells at times,” Opfer said. “We’ve been accused of turning our heads. We’re not gonna do that any longer.”

Opfer also volunteered that his daughter is good friends with Null’s wife – a well-known fact among the laborers — but said the fact that Null was fired anyway shows he’ll do the right thing regardless. But in the same breath, he acknowledged that he has publicly stated he didn’t think Null should have been fired. He said Null should have just been disciplined through the process where people get warnings first.

He said the vast majority of employees in the streets division don’t have any problems – but a small fraction take up most of his time.

“I’d like to come to work and not deal with crap,” he said – the exact same thing the laborers say they want.

As for the numerous ties between employees – whether by marriage, address or friendship – he said there is no nepotism going on, that all of the married couples met while working in the division and then got married, so there’s nothing that can be done about it.

As for the allegations that managers like Doug Hanson belittle and harass employees – sometimes brandishing a knife – Opfer said, “If I had proof that that occurred on my watch, I would definitely do something about it. They bring up things that happened a year or two, three years before I even became a manager.”

***

While Eric Kohles was on life support in a hospital, Opfer had a meeting with Kohles’ coworkers. Kohles was clinging to life after the Heckendorn tipped over and ended up on top of him in a drainage ditch just south of the Goodyear plant in Havelock.

The Heckendorn mower

He was apparently mowing near the ditch, which his former coworker, Roger Helmick, said was a bad idea, given the mower’s reputation for unpredictability and propensity to tip.

According to the laborers who were at the meeting, Opfer said, “I’m sorry I never did anything about that mower. They’re gonna pull Eric off life support. I’m very sorry.” But a few days later, Opfer had another meeting with the workers, and said he wasn’t referring to the Heckendorn mower, but a different old mower, and the fact that he should have surveyed the safety of the whole mowing program.

“I had never heard (of the) Heckendorn mower until the accident,” Opfer said. “I didn’t even know what a Heckendorn was.”

That conflicts with numerous employee accounts. The attorney for the PAGE union, Gary Young, said one of the leaders of the mowing crew specifically told Scott Opfer he should make sure that no inexperienced people were assigned to the ditch mowing operations, because it was far too dangerous for untrained and inexperienced operators.

Employees said Kohles had never been trained on the Heckendorn and had just been moved to mowing, and was sent out to the area along a steep drainage ditch without supervision. In fact, they say a little retaliation may have been involved in Kohles getting on the mower that day – the kind of retaliation routinely used – being assigned a tough job or a bad piece of equipment.

Young said employees reported that a supervisor had been complaining about a report from Kohles that another mower could not be used to complete a particular job the manager had assigned them to complete, and was angry at Kohles. The day of the accident, employees reported that this supervisor specifically ordered “make sure Eric (Kohles) is on the Heckendorn.” Employees reported that another piece of equipment that was assigned that day was to be operated by a more experienced employee, but this particular piece of equipment was very slow and would be delayed before reaching the job site.

As a result, Kohles was sent to the site to use the Heckendorn without any supervision. By the time the more senior employee arrived, the accident had already happened.

Opfer disputed that.

“Eric was not put on a crappy piece of equipment in retaliation,” he said.

Opfer also said the Heckendorn was perfectly fine to operate.

“They’re an appropriate piece of mowing equipment if you use them appropriately,” he said.

Then why did he apologize to Kohles’ coworkers?

“I went and I apologized to them because I felt very responsible for the whole thing,” Opfer said. “I just felt responsible for the fact that he was in an area that – in there where he mowed – I don’t believe he should have been mowing.”

He said normally, the workers don’t mow in that area.
“How did it get there that day? That’s a good question. I don’t know.”

To Young, the Kohles accident is emblematic of the problems in street maintenance. He represents public employee unions all over Nebraska – from cops to troopers to prison employees – and has never seen such bullying, interpersonal violence and neglect of employee safety.

“This is the worst managed operation I have ever seen,” he said. “People are bullied, retaliated against, and employees fear saying anything. It is no surprise to me that the culture that management has fostered there would lead to what happened.”

And even though the mayor’s chief of staff, Rick Hoppe, told the blue-collar workers not to lose faith, that the mayor’s office would try to help, Young said, “We have asked the mayor over and over again to deal with it. We have pled with his personnel director for years now. Everyone just shrugs their shoulders.”

After the Kohles accident, 11 employees filed a grievance with the city, claiming the city had created an unsafe working environment for Kohles by assigning him to work on an unsafe mower without proper training. They also accused the city of maintaining “a working culture in which employees are discouraged from raising concerns about safety, are humiliated when raising such concerns, and are specifically retaliated against in a number of ways when raising such concerns.”

They alleged managers would retaliate by criticizing them and assigning work “in a manner to punish employees.” They called for an independent investigation into the Kohles accident and whether any managers retaliate against employees who raise safety concerns.

“We just want to do our jobs”

Roger Helmick sees Kohles’ death as an example of what can happen in a culture where certain people get certain assignments, people are not always properly trained and supervised and equipment and jobs are assigned based on connections and vendettas.

Take his own story.

Roger Helmick shows where his former coworker Eric Kohles was mowing when the mower somehow tipped over onto him in a drainage ditch.

In January, he stood up when supervisors sent workers like him home after plowing snow from streets through the night. Their labor agreement says they cannot be forced to go home to avoid getting overtime – but the managers sent them home anyway.

He and others filed a grievance – and won. But it came with a price. The guy overseeing the entire public works department, Greg MacLean, sent a letter out thanking other street maintenance workers for not filing a grievance over the snow removal issue.

A day later, Roger Helmick got called into a boss’s office. He was told he was being moved to work on asphalt. He felt they were sending him a message – especially since he’d just been outfitted with new tools and a box that would fit his truck to finish concrete all summer.

Now suddenly, the plan had changed.

He believed his days were numbered. He took a vacation day the following day, a Friday, and barely slept all weekend. The next week, he called in to a phone line he says employees are told to use to report they’ll be out sick.

However, he just left a message saying, “I’ll be out” and didn’t leave his name. He said that’s not unusual – that employees are told to call that number if they’re going to be sick. And he said since supervisors like to play the recordings for each other and critique them for fun, he wanted to make his message short.

He went to the doctor for an ear problem he’d been battling, and got a doctor’s note. He left a message five days in a row, and on the fifth day, he got a letter from the public works director, saying “You failed to report to work” for five days, violating a city code that says if an employee is absent three or more days “without authorized leave” they “shall be deemed to have resigned.”

After nine years working for the city, he was out. The last sentence of the letter from MacLean said, “We request that you return all city property immediately.” The city has denied him a chance to appeal, since city officials claim he resigned.

Last year, Helmick was praised and featured in L Magazine for heading up the street maintenance division’s drive to raise $4,200 in contributions and 3,000 pounds of food for the Lincoln Food Bank. He says he was trying to help change negative perceptions of the division.

Of the whole situation, he often says, “We just want to come to work and do our jobs.”

Instead, now he’s looking for a job.

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. porcupine
    Apr 23 2011

    This Scott guy has been there from 2008 and you still have this going on he don’t know what the hell he is doing or don’t won’t to fix it

    Reply
  2. red ice
    Apr 23 2011

    its all about pushing it under the rug theres more people that kiss ass and enjoy it i guess but the people that keep quite or stand up for whats right will take the punishment and thats how he show personal he is taking care the problem get of the good people becuse the but kissers wont say anything about that

    Reply
    • Iris
      Apr 23 2011

      First of all, punctuation and a dictionary goes a long way.

      If you are claming to be “good people”, reveal yourself and be proud of that fact. Otherwise you just look like the kid standing behind the rest of his merry band of bullies throwing rocks at those of us who will not join them and speak out against them.

      I’m woman enough to state who I am, are you man enough. I guess maybe I’m just used to your attacks on me.

      Reply
      • Honest-injun
        Apr 24 2011

        With all the retailiation in st.maint. revealing your true identity on here would be like employment suicide.

      • Harrison
        Apr 24 2011

        Well then I guess Iris, Gary, Steve and a few others along with myself are in for a whole heap of trouble. Then again probably not.

      • YouGlow
        Apr 24 2011

        Harrison,
        I think honest indian is trying to say, if you have an opinion that differs with management you will be retaliated against(like Roger).But,if your up managements azz like you and the rest of the heros that have posted their so called real names….you dont have anything to worry about!; )

      • red ice
        Apr 25 2011

        If people that try and stand up to bullies put there name out they will the price iris w. And as far as your job goes I have heard that a parts runner has to do your job and his because you don’t know how to your so I guess all them degrees didn’t pay besides learning how to kiss azz

  3. Roberta
    Apr 25 2011

    I can’t wait to see article 4 and 5. There are Bullies all over the City check into the head shed (Mayor) and his dealings.

    Reply
  4. Jason Christenson
    Apr 25 2011

    This seems like something the Republicans could really make something out of. If only they had a candidate for mayor…

    Reply
    • red ice
      Apr 25 2011

      Or the mayor could do the right thing and go in clean up under rug it has to be pretty dirty after all these year of stuff being pushed under it

      Reply
  5. John Wayne
    Apr 25 2011

    Hey Scott,

    All you had to do was the right thing and put some of these managers in check and we all wouldnt be going thru this now.

    You asked people to come talk to you about the problems in st.maint..Instead of addressing the problems they told you about, you tried to send them a message as if they were the problem.

    You couldnt even stand up and be a man about Eric`s accident,instead you looked the whole shop in eye and told a bold faced lie.

    Do you really think anybody respects you after what youv done in the 3yrs youv run st.maint?Hardly.

    Reply
  6. May 3 2011

    scott opfer says in one breath, after the death that he did not even know what a heckendorn mower was. so why do you have a person running a dept. that does not even know what a simple mower type is that the city has been using for years. then he recants and says later that the mower was fine and safe. get your story straight opie. also has anyone mentioned that opfer was directed to take anger managment classes few years ago? someone needs to talk to some other employees in the construction engineering dept. as well as the traffic dept. about this guys past history of blowing up over things. as far as roger figard goes, he has been in a position for many years that he should have been removed from long long ago. I say clean house!!!

    Reply
  7. John Wayne
    May 5 2011

    Looks to me like city management is very corrupt from the mayors office(rick hoppe)on down.
    How do you go about cleaning things up?

    Reply
  8. coach
    May 5 2011

    Coercion is the practice of forcing another party to behave in a involuntary manner (whether through action or inaction) by use of threats, rewards, or intimidation or some other form of pressure or force. In law,coercion is codified as the duress crime. Such actions are used as leverage, to force the victim to act in the desired way. Coercion may involve the actual infliction of physical pain/injury or psychological harm in order to enhance the credibility of the threat. The threat of further harm may lead to the cooperation or obedience of the person being coerced.

    Reply
  9. DarkSide
    May 19 2011

    There are alot of problems running in the city since I started.Supervisers would just turn the backs and ignore what ever it was or did very little. It would seem to me every year their are new rules and changes.These new rules and changes most of the time would make jobs harder and miserable. Some rules and changes were understanding. Yes Scott Opfer came in and talked with every shop. Scott found out quick that there are more problems than he had ink and paper to write on. Since I had these meetings with Scott over the last few years,Scott has made changes needed such as cat walks and tarps on the trucks and more. Scott also has over changed/ruled an order given by a Shop superviser to do a job safe and not the way given,in front of co-workers.Scott has also had meetings with all the mowing crews to operate safely and use better judgement,to take our time and do it right.Scott is trying but it is just not enough but it is a start in the right direction. Scott may do or say things wrong,Scott has done something wrong in front of a meeting of one of the shops, however another co-worker was wrong too at that meeting.Scott should of handle it different, we are human and far from perfect.Sometimes our emotions get the best of us. To release a co-worker because he called in but didnt say his name and reason why he was calling in.Simple stated [Im not going to be able to make it in.] Just was not good enough for management. The sad thing is they knew who it was calling in and said so themselves as the upper management told every shop. It is uncalled for and not right to terminate a persons job/living over missed words! Their is proper way of handling that and that is not it.If that is the case than we should be able to fire/release Scott Opfer for his miss statement about the Eric Kohles`s accident in a meeting and corrected himself the next day in another meeting.Roger Helmick should of got a chance to correct himself as Scott did. I can understand how these problems would disrupt the flow of things.This is my first comment and I do read this blog alot now. IRIS stop being the grammer queen and throwing punches, be understanding,be cool. Iris by your comments you just splashing more fuel on the fire and hatred. We lost a brother,a friend and a great co-worker. We should all come together and stop point fingers. Look at 9-11-01 our country took a huge hit and loss. We were all affected by that tragedy and cared for one another for awhile. Today everything is back to the way it was before it happened. Supervisers and co-workers should have meetings together. Everyone should be heard. Every week the supervisers have a huge meeting. We all should be in those meetings,I like to know what is said and what isnt! This is all a dream, it will never happen. Upper management and supervisers like that one special word….DRAMA! It makes their job interesting because if it wasnt for Drama all they would have is coffee,meetings and paper work.It can be easy to write here about what the supervisers do wrong on and off the job….from drug abusers to gamblers but im not goin to. I want to try and do the right thing here because I know Eric Kohles would want me to. We need to stop everything and remember where we all came from. Pull ourselves together and get a grip.Lets all make a change and stop putting down,handing out crappy and unplanned work orders,making fun,belittling,lo-balling, under minding, pointing the finger,blaming someone else, push under the rug bullshit! I can go on and on! My advice would be come together get over the crap and move on! Lets be smart about our choices.Lets make the taxpayers somewhat happy out there and get the work loads done correct and safe! If the whole United States can get over the tragedy that happen 9-11-01 maybe we can too here in the city public works. United we stand divide we fall! Lets stick together and have a ball! Godbless us all!

    Reply
    • porcupine
      May 30 2011

      Boo Hoo we just took out Ben Loden that’s ten years after 9-11-01 I was not affected by 9-11-01 in anyway, but more to read about. If your such a great leader way don’t you stand up and do the right thing in stead of caving into the system.It’s obvious that the people calling the shots are cowards sniveling babies calling momma momma when they are called on something they are drunk on the little power and authority they have, pushing around the little people to make themselves fill more important then they are and to make up for their bad management skills. This didn’t happen overnight it takes years of piss poor management.Hopefully the workers will keep squeezing and applying pressure to the dirty no good bosses until the big Pus pocket pops and there left turning on each other in court of law!

      Reply
  10. John Wayne
    May 30 2011

    Its really not all that hard to believe that the city of Lincoln would go to such lengths to cover up what really happened in Erics Kohles accident is it?

    Look at what president Nixon did to cover up a burlary that he was responsible for making happen……..remember watergate?

    Lets call this thing the city of Lincoln has going in the street maint. dept. Mowergate!

    The city is doing all it can to cover up the fact that management is responsible for that mower still being in service after they had been warned about it two years before Erics accident.
    That Eric was sent out there to use that mower in retailiation for an incident that happened the week before!
    Eric was sent out there with that mower by an incompetent fool who wanted to get a little revenge for being called a liar the week before.

    The day of the accident Scott Opfer came in and told the guys in the shop he apologized for not listening to them when they told him how un-safe that mower was and that a newer safer mower was needed.

    When the news that Eric was brain dead and would be taken off life support came out,Scott Opfer called another meeting and said he wanted to clarify what equipment he was apologizing for and that he was not apologizing about the Heckindorn mower that Eric had his accident on!

    ARE YOU KIDDING ME? How can a man stand there and lie his azz off to another group of men that know exactly what the truth is?
    Scott Opfer is a prime example of the lying scum that make up much of not only the management within the street maint. dept. but,many key people in the personal dept. as well.

    Now after hearing the results of the eight month long police investigation into Erics death, are any of you surprised that the conclusion of this investigation is inconclusive?

    Is anyone surprised that Roger Helmick was rail-roaded out the door by this same group of people?

    If these city managers can influance the results of an investigation into a city workers on the job accident,that resulted in his death……what else are they covering up?Are these the people we want/need to be responsible or running the city of Lincoln?

    Are they to be trusted with the spending our tax dollars?Does the fact that the city of Lincoln is running in the red have anything to do with the fact that many these city managers are dirty and corrupt?

    Reply
  11. ken
    May 30 2011

    What else are they covering up? According to the Coby Mach program, people coming to work drunk, faulty drug tests, illegal gambling. This whole story has the making of a movie! You have plenty of violence, drugs, sex tapes, cover ups, knife wheeling managers, people being fired. It is hard to believe that the mayors office is involved with all of this! What’s even harder for me to believe is, i voted to put this administration back in office. I guess i don’t understand why they don’t send casady to oversee the street dept. where all the trouble is! Well, then again, it might end up “inconclusive”. There are a few of us at church who are following all of this, and there are a lot of prayers being said. Hopefully, this will all be resolved before long.

    Reply
  12. John Wayne
    May 30 2011

    Heres a little food for thought,Casady gets a big promotion after his dept does an investigation of Erics accident.The results of which are inconculsive.

    Now had the investigations results been that the city was at fault,it could cost the city millions of dollars…….hmmmm.

    Reply

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