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County Workers Say They Can’t Say What They Think : Layoffs: Managers deny it, but many employees whisper that speaking out could cost their jobs. ‘We’re intimidated.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A worker in the Orange County tax collector’s office creeps along the side of the building, eyes darting left and right.

“Put down that we’re intimidated,” she whispers, looking over her shoulder.

She will not give her name. She will not give her job title. Like many of the county’s 18,000 employees, she lives in fear and silence.

The woman is heartbroken to see the county preparing to lay off hundreds of employees. Along with $1.69 billion from its investment pool, the county can count her allegiance, and that of her co-workers, among its permanent losses. But she doesn’t dare attach her name to such a sentiment, for fear of being “next.”

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A bankruptcy judge temporarily blocked the county’s layoffs Tuesday, ordering officials to prove that the move is a legal and justified response by the biggest U.S. municipality ever to declare bankruptcy.

Regardless of Judge John E. Ryan’s ultimate decision, however, union representatives, workplace experts and bitter employees fear the county is using its budget disaster as an opportunity to weed out workers deemed disloyal, while intimidating those who remain.

Experts warn that Orange County will need a highly productive work force to help it regain financial health, and they predict that frightening workers unduly will only doom the county to a long period of sluggish, dispirited service.

Department heads and managers, who say layoffs are being conducted with an emphasis on keeping the most qualified workers, also strongly deny that they have pressured or intimidated employees.

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“No gag order in our agency,” said Tom Uram, head of the Health Care Agency. “Talk to anybody you want. If you’ve got somebody who wants to talk to you, be sure to talk to them.”

But many employees, in various county departments, say they have been told just the opposite.

“They’re being intimidated by management not to say anything,” said Jeff Henderson, a facility operations manager laid off from the General Services Agency two weeks ago. “As a matter of fact, I shouldn’t be talking to you now.”

Managers and some county supervisors counter by saying they’ve done nothing more than respond aggressively to a crisis.

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“I think everybody . . . is concerned about morale,” said Dave Kiff, an aide to Marian Bergeson, one of two new county supervisors. “The way you improve morale is to provide a good line of communication, up and down the county structure.”

But workers tell a different story.

“Right now, everybody’s on eggshells,” said 51-year-old Deedra Molinet, who claims she was forced to resign last Thursday by the Health Care Agency after weeks of dread and worry.

While conceding that she quarreled with her superiors, Molinet said a new, unspoken policy of favoritism is afoot, which makes working for the county an unnerving exercise in high-stakes office politics.

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“Everybody’s very scared,” she said. “There are a lot of people in my situation that are threatened and coerced and intimidated.”

Molinet’s immediate superior declined to comment.

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Mitchell Marks, an organizational psychologist who has authored a new book, “From Turmoil to Triumph: New Life After Mergers and Downsizing,” said the county is reasonable to expect employees to avoid the media but must bend over backward to avoid the appearance that anything but merit was used as a criterion in layoff decisions. A demoralized work force, he said, could be as stubborn a problem as any the county has faced.

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“One thing the corporate sector has learned is there’s a price to pay by mismanaging . . . transitions,” Marks said. “When the organization turns the corner and gets over the crisis, the top brass says, ‘OK, the worst is behind us, let’s pull together and charge up the mountain!’ And the troops are going to say, ‘Uh-uh.’ ”

Thomas E. Preston, a Los Angeles psychiatrist who counsels people about the loss of their jobs, said county workers may be especially ill prepared for all this trauma and trepidation.

“Government service attracts people who can tolerate this kind of thing the least,” he said. “They go into that because it’s a very well-paying job. It’s usually considered a lifetime career. . . . If you pay your dues and do your work, you don’t get laid off or fired. So it attracts a certain person who has a need for that, and those people are devastated.”

While acknowledging that budget-cutting is necessary as the county confronts a $172-million budget deficit over the next 5 1/2 months, Marks and others suspect that county officials are falling prey to a common form of managerial zeal.

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“It’s very invigorating,” Marks said, “because they’re in control. There is a crisis going on. It’s like the Bay of Pigs war room. Although it was, by all accounts, a political failure, people in the war room there were very invigorated.”

Declaring a fiscal emergency that gave them broad powers, the Board of Supervisors last month voided union contracts designed to shield workers from capricious bosses and random firings. Over union protests, the supervisors said seniority would not necessarily be considered when it came time to lay off more than 400 workers.

Whether or not a bankruptcy judge supports the county, the layoff effort has had an instant unsteadying effect on workers once referred to by the supervisors as the “county family.” Many employees now feel disowned. With union contracts set aside, the county has done more than push for deep cuts in personnel. Officials have also scrapped highly popular flexible time schedules, canceled promotions, proposed a 5% salary cut for all employees and threatened to strip workers of accumulated sick time, which runs into tens of thousands of dollars for some.

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Still, despite all these setbacks, a woman in the tax collector’s office--who stands to lose an enormous portion of her retirement savings if her sick pay is rescinded--would not offer a peep of protest on the record. She fears any insubordination, no matter how slight, could draw the attention of a budget-cutting manager.

Many employees say it is not an intuition that keeps them quiet; managers have explicitly forbidden them from publicly complaining. Union representatives say such a campaign of secrecy supports the charge that an unwritten standard is being used, one the county does not want held up to the light of public scrutiny.

“A number of our employees feel that there was discrimination involved,” said Tobye Lovelace, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Employees Assn. “Their (superiors) didn’t like them.”

Harley Shaiken, a professor of work and technology at UC Berkeley, said such a charge is impossible to prove, since most people who are laid off believe they were victims of a vendetta.

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“There’s a very thin line between a real crisis and just barreling through an organization and getting rid of who you don’t want,” Shaiken said. “One person’s deadwood is (another’s) rank favoritism.”

Experts say it is a measure of not just widespread fear but the depth of loyalty among county workers that, even after being laid off, so many are reluctant to speak out.

Perhaps some employees have learned from the example of James Colon, who says that because he didn’t get along with his superior he became one of the first to get the ax in the General Services Agency. After being given two weeks’ notice, Colon says, he was seen talking to a reporter. His superior promptly told him to clean out his desk. His two-week notice was rescinded without explanation, he says, and he was placed on immediate administrative leave.

“People are running scared,” he said of the friends and workers he left behind. “People are walking around with their heads bowed down.”

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R.A. (Burt) Scott, director of the General Services Agency where Colon worked for more than five years, said Colon’s discussion with a reporter had nothing to do with his being ushered from the building. “The truth is that if our employees want to talk to reporters, they can do so,” Scott said.

“The concern is,” said Gary L. Granville, head of the clerk-recorder’s office, “that (someone) could say something that could reverberate through Wall Street.”

But employees are more concerned about saying something that reverberates in their bosses’ offices. Even one county supervisor is surprised at how little protest the employees and their union representatives have offered.

“Maybe it hasn’t hit home yet,” said Supervisor William G. Steiner.

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Actually, workers say, the crisis has hit home, hard, and that’s why they choose not to vent.

“Everyone’s afraid,” said a man named Robert, who would not give his last name or say which department of the county he works for.

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As a smoker, Robert is among the minority of workers who have no choice but to meet the press. Compelled at regular intervals to stand outside county buildings and puff away, smokers may not be the boldest county employees, but they are the most visible, so they are invariably the first to be accosted by reporters.

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“I survived the first wave” of layoffs, Robert said one recent day during a cigarette break. “But when the second wave comes, maybe I’ll be swept away.”

The difference between staying and being swept away, he said, could be having his name linked to criticism of the county.

“My people are intimidated, my staff,” said Zaida Ramos, who supervises more than 20 workers in the Health Care Agency and was given a four-month notice last week. “It’s totally tragic, because what you’re going to have left is nothing but ‘yes’ people.”

In fact, workplace experts say that is precisely what the county will inherit when this crisis is over.

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“What you end up with is workers spending a lot of time trying to preserve their own jobs and less time doing what they’re supposed be doing,” said Shaiken.


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