Part 3 of Special Report: Employees say safety issues ignored
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.
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.
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.
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.