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‘Forced To Quit’
BISMARCK, N.D. – Two women who worked at the North Dakota Tourism Department say Director Allan Stenehjem forced them to quit their jobs, violating state law.
Both said Stenehjem was unhappy with them fitting family obligations into their work schedules.
Stenehjem was named head of the agency on Gov. John Hoeven’s first day in office last December.
The women, Pat Hertz and Denise Bakkum, were fired in February.
In the case of Hertz, who was film commissioner and a 12-year employee, it comes down to whether the statement made in frustration, “Maybe I’ll quit,” means “I quit.”
Hertz said she did not resign during an argument in Stenehjem’s office Feb. 28. Stenehjem says in letters to Hertz’s union that she resigned unconditionally and he accepted it.
He also says he “immediately signed” Hertz’s request for time off to be with her father.
Hertz wants her job back.
“I loved my job, and I thought I did a good job,” she said.
She said her performance reviews under the previous three tourism directors were all positive.
Laws covering state government employees protect them from being terminated without cause.
Stenehjem declined comment about the Hertz case, saying it would be inappropriate until her grievance case is concluded.
In the other case, Bakkum said Stenehjem called her in from maternity leave in February and demanded she make a year’s commitment to her position of coordinating motor coach tours or “leave now (and) it won’t be on bad terms.”
She said she was intimidated and agreed to quit, but now believes she was coerced.
Her job was filled by Joan Wigen, a Republican campaign worker.
Stenehjem said he never worked with Bakkum, so there’s nothing to comment on.
A state employees’ union official said both cases violate state law on public employees’ rights and that Stenehjem is showing a pattern of abusing and bullying employees.
The North Dakota Public Employees Association is taking Hertz’s case to an administrative hearing and then to court, said executive director Chris Runge, who believes the case may set a precedent.
“We think we have a pretty strong case,” Runge said. “This is about somebody who wanted to spend three hours with her sick father. Three hours.”
Hertz said that on Feb. 28 she asked Stenehjem to sign a leave slip for three hours off the next morning to be with her father during an angiogram. She would still be able to get to Fargo later in the day for part of the Fargo Film Festival that she was expected to attend.
Under state personnel laws, state workers can use their sick leave to care for family members.
She said that instead of signing the slip, Stenehjem asked, “How many more times is this going to happen?” She had earlier sought a day off in March for her mother’s back surgery.
“He raised his voice and I was stunned,” she said. He told her it was the second time she’d canceled something due to her parents’ health “and I need to trust that you can be here to do your job.”
She said he also threatened to demote her.
“He said … you need to be here to do your job. If this is going to be ongoing, we need to evaluate your job responsibilities.”
When he left her office without signing the leave slip, Hertz called NDPEA and was advised to ask again.
She also complained to her co-workers that Stenehjem had yelled at her, and one said, “join the club, he yelled at me and everybody out in the front office.”
When she went into Stenehjem’s office with the leave slip, she said he blew up and demanded again to know how many more times she was going to seek leave to care for her parents.
When she told him she’d called the union, she said Stenehjem stood up angrily and said that if she wanted to “get into this with me … you have your representative call me.”
She responded, “Maybe I will and maybe I won’t. Or maybe I’ll quit.” As she left his office, he said, “I accept your resignation.”
Hertz said her words should not have been taken as a resignation and she planned to go back to work the next week. But others in the department told her Stenehjem considered her terminated and she has not been back.
An administrative hearing on her request to get her job back is set for Sept. 20. She has already lost an attempt to collect unemployment insurance.
Runge said the union is taking action in Hertz’s case because it’s important to come forward and protect other state employees’ rights.
Bakkum is not a member of NDPEA and was not aware that she could appeal her case until after deadlines had passed, Runge said.
“I didn’t know what my rights were,” Bakkum said, partly because she was never given an employee handbook or a job description. When she asked about maternity leave, the human resource manager in the Tourism Department told her to look up the relevant law on the Internet.
Bakkum began her 12 weeks of maternity leave – authorized by both state and federal laws – in December before Stenehjem took over the department.
She was still on leave the first week of February when he wrote her a letter and called her at home, saying it was imperative that she come in to talk to him about her motor coach duties.
She said when she got to Stenehjem’s office, he instead demanded she make a commitment to work full time for a year.
“He never discussed part time. The first words out of his mouth were, ‘I need a year.’ I was waiting for him to give me some options,” she said.
She said she couldn’t promise him a year and he said, “If you leave now, it won’t be on bad terms.”
She was intimidated and reluctantly decided she had to resign, she said.
But the employee association’s Runge said there has to be cause to terminate state employees and her rights were violated under that law and also state and federal maternity leave laws. She said Bakkum may be able to lodge a complaint through the state Labor Department.
Bakkum also says she’s been treated differently from other employees who have young children.
“He gave other employees the option to work part time and bring their babies to work (after she left) and I was never given that option,” she said. Nor did he demand any other employee give a one-year commitment, she said.
Bakkum said she was surprised at Stenehjem’s demand because she had heard him speak at a working women’s seminar last fall and he had said there that he was pro-women and pro-family.
She doesn’t know if she will pursue any action.
“I thought about writing the governor a letter,” she said. “I’m glad to be at home with my child. I would have like to have made that decision myself.”
The irony is that Hertz and Bakkum would be the last people in Tourism to be able to use the state employee protection laws. The Legislature this year, in combining Tourism into the new Commerce Department, made all Commerce employees unclassified, at-will employees who can be let go for no reason. That took effect July 1.
Source: The Forum - 07/23/2001
written by Janell Cole,
firstname.lastname@example.org Readers can reach Forum reporter
Janell Cole at (701) 224-0830