By Dan Christensen, Broward Bulldog
Four Broward water and sewer employees – including three managers – have been suspended without pay after an internal investigation of sexual harassment allegations found widespread workplace misconduct.
The division’s assistant director was reprimanded, and a mechanic was fired for refusing a reassignment prompted by his role in the matter, according to Water and Wastewater Services director Alan Garcia.
“The work environment at WWS is permeated with managers, supervisors and their subordinates engaging in inappropriate behavior and language of a sexual nature,” says a nine-page report by the county’s professional standards office. It also said supervisory staff has not reported harassment complaints up the chain of command as required by county policy.
WWS, a division of Broward’s Public Works Department, employs nearly 400 people.
Three of the four who drew five-day suspensions two weeks ago have filed grievances with their unions.
“This went from the investigation of a legitimate complaint to a witch hunt,” said Richard Cutshaw, union representative of Local 100 of the Government Supervisors Association of Florida. “Discipline was imposed based on vague statements that didn’t say when did this happen and what was the context.”A grievance hearing will be held Oct. 20 before Broward’s Director of Public Works Thomas Hutka.
Garcia, however, said he agrees completely with the Aug. 10 report’s findings and recommendations, which includes additional training.
“We don’t tolerate this kind of behavior in our organization,” Garcia said.
While the report doesn’t pinpoint where the incidents occurred, many of the 19 people questioned in the probe worked at what’s known as District 4, the North Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant at 2401 N. Powerline Road in Pompano Beach.
The county defines sexual harassment as any “unwanted and unwelcome” behavior that “debilitates morale, thereby interfering with work effectiveness.” Likewise, actions that are not sexual in nature but create a hostile environment because of gender are also prohibited.
Garcia said the report, written by Investigator Steven Patterson, reveals a “longstanding culture” at the plant where employees “are busting each other’s chops and cracking jokes and things that they should not have been doing.”
The investigation began in April on a complaint by a maintenance scheduler who alleged harassment by two mechanics who asked him whether he was gay.
The report then devolves into a discussion of who said what, and what life is like in the plant’s break room where the entertainment has included watching the Maury Povich show and cracking sexual jokes about “chubby chasers” and the “Chi Chi Man,” the title of a Jamaican song about a gay man.
The report determined that mechanics John Warner and Thomas Pawlicki Jr. violated the county’s sexual harassment policy. Warner was dismissed when he refused a transfer, Garcia said.
“According to Mr. Warner, he feels like a scapegoat because the joking ‘has been going on for 20-30 years,’ and he wasn’t doing anything different than the rest of the staff,” the report says.
Pawlicki denied the scheduler’s allegation, but was suspended and transferred after a finding that he has a “history” of violating the county’s sexual harassment policy. He is appealing his one-week suspension.
Also, the report found that the scheduler’s supervisor, Curtis Preece, failed to notify higher-ups of the problem and also “engaged in inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature.” Preece was suspended for a week, demoted one pay grade and transferred. He also filed a grievance.
The report doesn’t stop there. After recounting “numerous instances of inappropriate comments and behavior of a sexual nature” by other employees – including a heavy dose of gay name-calling and raw references to gay sex acts – it recommended action be taken against others, like Preece, who were not accused of anything by the scheduler.
Assistant Division Director Clive Haynes, Plant Superintendent Ralph Aliseo and Chief Plant Operator Persad Bissessar “have all been observed engaging in inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature,” the report says. Haynes was reprimanded for not bringing such matters to the attention of higher-ups. Aliseo and Bissessar were suspended for a week. Aliseo served his suspension and did not appeal, Garcia said. Bissessar filed a grievance.
Union representative Cutshaw acknowledged times have changed regarding such talk, but added “this is not an office setting.
“The people that made these decisions are in offices. So they are offended. But a lot of guys, to cut stress and get through the day, sometimes make comments, but nobody takes offense,” he said.
The report had a final suggestion to county bosses: Yank the television in the break room – or limit it to the county’s channel – because it “may be contributing and supporting the inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature.”
A WWS employee said the television has been removed.
County brass hopes the message that’s being sent gets through.
“Everybody’s been given the word that they better knock it off now,” Garcia said.