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Charges of Nepotism and Favoritism at Milwaukee DHS Office

Employees question bonuses and promotions under Act 10

Jun. 11, 2013
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State employees are speaking out about promotions and bonuses given to relatives of managers within the State Department of Health Services (DHS) Milwaukee Enrollment Services (MilES), headquartered at the Coggs Human Services Center on Vliet Street.

A handful of managers’ relatives with less than two years of experience were promoted over colleagues with up to 14 years of experience.

Those same favored employees were among those who received a $2,500 windfall last week, when DHS awarded roughly 900 employees $2.5 million in bonuses at managers’ discretion.

Vanessa Robertson, chief operations officer of DHS at the Coggs Center, refused to answer the Shepherd’s questions about the allegations last week.

Robertson’s son, Gavin, was among those who received the $2,500 bonus. He was hired in May 2012 and was promoted in April 2013 over employees with more seniority, earning $4.65 more per hour as a result.

David Eisner, a contract administrator for District Council 48, is representing four employees who have filed six appeals with the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) over the questionable promotions.

Eisner charged that it takes at least two years for an employee to become proficient and a one-year employee such as the COO’s son should not have been promoted in April.

“This is flat-out nepotism,” Eisner said.

While the passed-over employees can appeal the unfair promotions to the WERC, they have no way to appeal the bonuses.

“And if you’re not the boss’s buddy, you’re not going to get a bonus,” Eisner said.


New Hires Advancing Rapidly

Eisner said that these allegedly unfair promotions never could have happened prior to Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10, which gutted collective bargaining rights for public employees. Although portions of Act 10 have been put on hold for municipal employees and teachers, the full law is in effect for state employees, including DHS MilES employees.

Although nothing in state law prevents relatives from working together, the state’s nepotism policy prohibits relatives from receiving preferential treatment over other employees.

DHS spokeswoman Stephanie Smiley said that relatives are not able to sit on interviewing panels for new hires and employees competing for promotions. That said, candidates’ identities are known to the interviewers on the panels. Their recommendations are then forwarded to Ed Kamin, who runs the MilES program and approves new hires and promotions.

Smiley said that it was entirely possible for a one-year employee to leapfrog over more senior candidates during the promotion process, which includes exams as well as the interview.

“Seniority is not something that is necessarily going to make or break an applicant,” Smiley said. “It is certainly something that is considered during the interview process. But I think if you are a solid performer, that is something that is going to help you advance.”

Seniority apparently wasn’t a factor when MilES promoted 12 employees to the position of Income Maintenance Specialist-Advanced in April. Eight of the 12 were hired in 2011 and 2012, including the three and possibly four relatives of MilES managers.

Yet a letter from MilES human resources told those who were rejected that “we have selected another individual whose qualifications and experience better match our needs at this time.”

One employee with more than a decade of experience who went up for the promotion told the Shepherd that she couldn’t believe the “qualifications and experience” rationale in the rejection letter.

“I didn’t feel that was the case,” she said.

Other employees who spoke to the Shepherd have said they are afraid to question the new promotions and face retribution from managers.

But they said that the promotions have caused hurt, confusion and wild speculation within the office.

Perhaps that’s why MilES CEO/Director Kamin sent an office-wide email to employees on May 7, the day new staff came on board.

“Take a look at the poem below and think of it the next time someone attempts to spread a rumor or gossip,” Kamin wrote.

The poem Kamin sent to his employees is titled “Nobody’s Friend,” and begins, “My name is Gossip. I have no respect for justice.”


A Downturn in Morale

The discretionary bonuses for state employees were intended to reward exceptional employees, level out pay irregularities and retain workers who could get paid more in the private sector.

State employees haven’t had a raise since 2008 and they are now paying more toward their health care benefits and pensions as a result of Act 10. A small raise was given to them in the next budget, to begin in 2014, with another small raise scheduled for 2015.

That’s why the allegations about the lucrative promotions, as well as the internal publication of the names of the employees who received the $2,500 bonuses, have stung so hard, Eisner said.

“It’s caused such a downturn in morale,” Eisner said.

Smiley told the Shepherd that not every state employee is going to like the new, Act 10-enabled compensation policy.

“I think that as the administration rolls out the compensation plan and begins talking about what the future looks like in terms of state employees and providing additional compensation and wage adjustments, I think not everybody is going to be happy,” Smiley said. “But I think there are a lot of folks who are beginning to understand where the administration is going.”


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