2017-06-01 / Local News

‘At will’ health workers split on policy change

By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff

A change in the policy manual to verify that all staff members are “at will” employees was approved last week by the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department (BLDHD).

The Board of Health voted 5-1 last Thursday, with Benzie member Roger Griner opposed, to approve a change in personnel policy despite concerns expressed by employees.

“It solidifies what an ‘at will’ employee is,” said Melinda Lautner, chairman of the Board of Health and Leelanau County commissioners. “It was something that stemmed from the lawsuit filed by Bill Crawford.”

Former health department director Bill Crawford filed a federal lawsuit against the BLDHD in 2012 after he was demoted and his pay cut by nearly half amid allegations of employee harassment.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld a federal District Court judge’s decision dismissing the lawsuit based largely on what was considered his status as an at-will employee.

Crawford, a 41-year department employee now working as a sanitarian, addressed the board last week. He was opposed to the policy amendment.

“The policy will officially make all Health Department employees ‘at will.’ While the federal Court of Appeals stated as part of my lawsuit against the Board of Health that current policy is effectively ‘at will,’ neither the administration nor employees treated it as such over the 20 years that it has been place,” Crawford to the Health Board.

He spoke from a prepared statement that was attached to preliminary minutes of the meeting. Information for this story came from those minutes.

He expressed concern that the policy change could compromise the department and the decisions of staff members. Crawford explained that while serving as health officer, a Leelanau County commmissioner suggested an employee be fired for “costing people too much money.” The commissioner reported his constituents supported the firing. Crawford didn’t act on the request.

“I told him that the employee was doing his job,” Crawford said, adding that the personnel policy required a reason to justify such a serious action and there was none. He did not reveal the name of the commission.

“Every week environmental sanitarians make decisions based on Health Law or regulations that irritate or anger clients … The potential will exist to either the health officer or any member of the Board of Health seeking punitive action from which the employee will have no real protection,” Crawford said.

He asked the board to table the policy change.

Crawford was a member of the approximately 45 percent of employees who had varying degrees of concern with the proposed changes.

Sanitarian Clay McNitt, representing the BLDHD employee committee, presented board members with a memo outlining the group’s concerns.

However, Autumn Jurek, also representing the employee committee, share the views of other employees who had no concerns with the proposed changes and “trust in the culture of the organization.”

In other business last week the Board of Health agreed on appropriation requests to Leelanau and Benzie counties for the 2017-18 fiscal year, which for the department begins Oct. 1.

Historically, the department has asked each county for 3 percent increases to cover cost increases.

In the present budget year, the board did not ask for an increase. But for the next fiscal year, Leelanau and Benzie counties are being asked for increases.

In a formula based on property values and populations, the board is asking Leelanau County for another $9,060 for the coming budget year for a total of $311,060 — a 2.8 percent increase, Lautner said.

A request for a 3.17 percent increase has been made to Benzie County. The additional $6,546 would bring Benzie’s contribution to $224,740.

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