Tension Between Union and Department of Health Intensifies

As Friction between Union, Department of Health Intensifies, Police Called To Intervene

Employees and managers at odds over years of ‘deep-seated issues’

| Published:
Petition

Workers and union representatives with the county's Department of Health and Human Services say they were locked out of the agency's administrative office when they tried to deliver a workplace petition to Director Raymond Crowel.

Photo via Facebook

Montgomery County police were asked to step in last week when union employees tried to deliver a workplace petition to the county’s Department of Health and Human Services administrative offices in Rockville.

It was the latest sign of conflict within a department long plagued by disagreements between the staff and management. President Gino Renne of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1994 — a union chapter representing HHS employees — called the agency “one of the worst-run departments in the entire county government.”

County Executive Marc Elrich said his administration inherited years of complaints over workloads, staffing levels, and management response to workplace grievances.

“There are deep-seated issues that go back years and have never been resolved,” Elrich said in a phone interview on Monday. “I expect people to listen and take this seriously, because this is something we knew when we inherited HHS.”

Several employees and union representatives drove to the department’s administrative offices on Hungerford Drive on Wednesday to deliver a petition to Director Raymond Crowel. Union field representative Ryan Conlon, who works with HHS employees, said other supervisors have ignored or dismissed concerns from workers, driving them to appeal to the department’s top leadership.

But Crowel said he received no advance warning that the petition was coming, and wasn’t in the office at the time it was delivered. Security guards followed safety protocols by calling his assistant and a human resources representative to meet the visitors on the first floor, he added. The guards later called police to help control the situation.

Conlon said employees and union representatives have the contractual right to visit any workplace to conduct union business.

After administrators said Crowel wasn’t in the office, representatives asked to speak with someone else. Administrators went back upstairs without agreeing to a meeting, and security officers told the visitors they had to leave the building, Conlon said.

“That’s when I’m like, ‘We’ve got to go up and figure out what’s going on,’” he added.

The group went to the fifth floor, but the office doors were locked and no one would let them in.
About 20 minutes later, a security guard called police, who arrived roughly 15 minutes after that, he said.

Montgomery County police responded to a trespassing call at 10:36 a.m., according to Capt. Tom Jordan. Conlon said HHS administrators Susan Seling and Kristi Johnson-Ford accepted the petition after officers arrived. The employees then left peacefully.

But Conlon wondered why the police were involved at all. “If we could have just had a dialogue, everything would have been avoided,” he said.

In an interview on Friday, Crowel said employees could have disrupted other work in the building, where clients receive mental health treatment and other county services.

Seeking solutions to ongoing grievances

The petition addressed just one of the ongoing employee grievances against HHS.

In 2016, the department changed its evaluation system for income assistance program specialists, roughly 140 employees who determine eligibility for state and federal benefits.

Workers have always been assessed, in part, on their accuracy in determining local applicants’ eligibility for benefits such as food stamps and temporary cash assistance, Conlon said. But three years ago, the department increased the weight of accuracy for employee evaluations from around 25% to 50% of total performance standards.

Crowel said the change addressed an “exceedingly high” rate of processing errors, which could hurt residents and the department. Inaccurately denying benefits could “damage someone’s life,” Crowel added, while incorrectly approving them could require the county or state to repay the federal government.

State and federal regulations determine eligibility. The Maryland Department of Human Services periodically audits the county to ensure applications are processed correctly, county HHS spokeswoman Mary Anderson said.

But Conlon said the change in performance evaluations sowed fear among program specialists, who worried that some supervisors were incorrectly claiming errors. Managers audit 10 cases per worker every month to ensure accuracy of at least 81% to 88% — the minimum allowed under state and federal regulations.

“I think the question is, how do we definitively know they’re applying the correct interpretation?” Conlon said in an interview on Wednesday. One program specialist became concerned after a supervisor said she made an error by not counting a child support payment on a food stamps benefits renewal.

The applicant received $40 in child support that month. But when payments are sporadic, as they were in that case, the department’s computer — connected to a statewide monitoring system — calculates an average based on the previous three months.

Child support payments factor into eligibility for income-based programs, and sporadic payments often average out to zero. Conlon said. In this case, a supervisor told the employee she made a mistake by not accounting for the $40, but reversed the decision after the employee appealed to another manager.

Workers with lower accuracy rates are threatened with work improvement plans, Conlon said, which could lead to termination if performance doesn’t improve in 90 days.

“The threat is so widespread and rampant that frequently, our workers are frightened,” Conlon said. “They deal with extreme anxiety. Their nerves are shot.”

Crowel said employees are not threatened with termination — workplace improvement plans are simply the first step in addressing performance problems.

Anderson, citing numbers from human resources manager Kristi Johnson-Ford, said fewer than 10 specialists a year, out of 140, are put on improvement plans. Only one worker was terminated since evaluation standards changed, she said.

Employees and managers are at an impasse over evaluations. Crowel said a grievance filed by workers in 2017 was overruled by an independent mediator.

Case accuracy is vital to maintain federal compliance, he added.

“The goal is to get down to a minimum number, and this process helped us reach this point,” Crowel said. “A mediator heard both sides and the complaint was withdrawn because it was not grievable.”

To Conlon and Renne, the department’s response reinforces a history of minimizing valid employee concerns.

Union representatives are working with department leaders to form labor management committees, which Elrich hopes will improve communication.

Crowel said he’s also receptive to employee concerns. But Renne doubted the department would improve labor relations.

“Raymond Crowel needs to step up to the plate and hold his managers accountable,” he said. “The honeymoon is over. He’s been a department head since June and still hasn’t demonstrated any desire or ability to change their management style.”

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