Labor disputes between state workers and their employer generally play out behind closed doors, where union representatives and administration lawyers exchange testimony in confidence.
But John Howe, a counselor at the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, has chosen a different route. And on Thursday afternoon, his union colleagues marched alongside him as he walked to the Montpelier hearing room where he was to be interrogated about the alleged workplace violations that led to his placement on paid administrative leave last month.
“The only way to actually change the playing field, to make it fair for management and labor, is to be vocal about it and expose the process,” Howe says.
Last month, the state began its investigation against Howe. But on Wednesday, Howe struck back, filing a lawsuit against the state at Vermont Superior Court in Chittenden County. Howe says his supervisors launched a campaign of retaliation after he criticized management practices at the department where he works. And Howe has also decided to try his case in the court of public opinion.
The allegations against Howe include allowing a non-state employee to authorize public expenditures, and to use his state-issued cell phone. But Howe and his union lawyers say the charges are frivolous, manufactured as punishment for his testimony earlier this year about the inappropriate use of poorly paid contract workers at the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation.
Howe works as a counselor at the department, where he tries to get indigent and disabled clients jobs, shelter and medical care.
Howe says he’s been an employee in good standing for 18 years, earning a quote “excellent” rating in his most recent performance review, as well as a $500 merit bonus. But he says supervisors brought the hammer down on him shortly after he testified before lawmakers about what he says is an increasing reliance on low-wage labor for duties formerly performed by better paid government employees.
“I’m making public statements, I’m going public and increasingly severe disciplinary actions are taking place around me,” Howe says. “I believe they’re investigating to find whatever they can to eliminate me and silence me.”
Kate Duffy, the commissioner of the Department of Human Resources, says the administration encourages and appreciates employee testimony at the Statehouse, critical or not.
“Let me just say first and foremost: we support union activity,” Duffy says. “We support employees going to the Legislature and sharing the information that they have. Retaliation for those activities is completely inappropriate.”
But Duffy says it’s troubling to see Howe and the union going public with claims of retaliation for which she’s seen no hard evidence.
Simple because some things have happened, you can’t just assume that they’re all causally related,” Duffy says. “We don’t even know whether his managers knew about the activity that he was engaged in.”
But Howe’s union lawyers say the circumstantial evidence is damning. Rebecca McBroom, associate general counsel at the Vermont State Employees Association, is representing Howe in his civil case against the state.
“Well one thing that you’re always looking at when you’re deciding whether there is retaliation for protected activity is the timeline,” McBroom says. “And that is, has someone engaged in protected activity and then faces continuous adverse action by their employer or intimidation tactics by their employer.”
Howe and McBroom say the state’s actions are designed not just to “silence” Howe, but to send a message to other state workers that might otherwise alert lawmakers or the public to waste, inefficiency or incompetence in state government.
“The waste comes because state workers can’t point out that there’s waste and abuse in the system,” Howe says. “They can see it. But because of the culture of the government – the culture of silence – they can’t speak out.”
Howe is asking a judge to stop the state’s investigation into his alleged wrongdoing. Howe is also seeking compensatory damages. Duffy says the state is continuing its probe into alleged wrongdoing by Howe, as well as Howe’s claims of retaliation by his supervisors.