BROOKSVILLE — In the spring, county utilities workers were called out for what seemed like a routine pipe repair, but it turned out to be something more.
The crew had to cut into a pipe that was loaded with asbestos. But rather than putting on special suits, wearing the required respirators and wetting down and wrapping the pipe for cutting, they simply cut into it and set it on the side of the road.
Two workers were covered with asbestos dust. When safety committee member and co-worker Jim Beck saw what had happened, he snapped a photo and reported the violation of safety rules.
That was when everything began to unravel.
Since that time, Beck has been reprimanded for his attitude with his co-workers and called on the carpet multiple times by his supervisors. Then in September, 46 of the 116 workers at the Wiscon Road utilities office signed a petition denouncing Beck and accusing him of destroying morale.
On Monday, county officials are scheduled to meet with some of those who signed the petition to get to the bottom of the hostility, which has festered since the petition arrived.
County Administrator David Hamilton and Jerry Haines of the county's human resources office will conduct a series of 30-minute interviews with select employees who have been involved in some of the recent incidents. Hamilton called the meetings a "climate assessment,'' designed to find out what is really happening at the site.
"Perception is often reality,'' Hamilton said, referring to the strident points of view expressed in the petition and the correspondence from the employees union that has been prompted by the situation.
"To clear away perception, we need to have one-on-one contact with the staff,'' he said.
In the last few months, there have been incidents where Beck's uniform has been slashed, black marker has been applied to his union and county patches, and another worker has taken videos of employees with his cell phone during staff meetings. There have also been instances where Beck and other union members have been treated differently for the same behavior.
Beck declined to talk to a reporter about his situation, allowing union officials to speak for him.
The petition and the tense work environment it symbolizes at the Wiscon Road utilities office is, on the surface, about one man and the way he gets along with his fellow employees. But that is not what local union officials say is happening.
Beck is the alternate union steward at Wiscon, the site from which more than 95 percent of the issues dealt with by Teamsters Local 79 in recent months have come. None of the workers who signed the petition are in the union. There are just 28 dues-paying union members at the site, according to county human resources records.
According to Chris Soto, a union steward who used to work at the Wiscon office, the Wiscon site had been a tough nut to crack for the union. Across all county departments, of the 459 employees eligible to be Teamsters, well more than half have joined the union. A total of 256 pay dues.
Union leaders say that Beck's whistle-blowing on safety and union contract violations has ruffled the feathers of utilities managers and staff members who side with them.
"They don't want to march to a different beat,'' Soto said. "They want to do things the way that they always have. They take care of their own.''
This is the first major employee challenge taken on by the Teamsters since they organized county workers in March 2009. The Wiscon Road facility is the same location where people were reprimanded and lost their jobs over racial comments made to two workers in 2008. Those strained work relationships cost the county's insurance carrier tens of thousands of dollars in settlement money.
The original petition against Beck, a five-year employee, that workers sent to County Commission Chairman John Druzbick alleged that Beck had for months "constantly caused disruption, turmoil and a chaotic work environment. His actions include but are not limited to berating, intimidation and humiliation of fellow employees which also includes supervisor and managers.''
Employees were seeking the commission's help because they said that nothing had been done about Beck's behavior.
Assistant utilities director Jesse Goodwin responded to commissioners and top county staffers in an e-mail saying that Beck had been counseled and reprimanded through human resources, and he suggested that Beck be moved to another work site.
Teamsters business agent Steve Mosley did some research before responding to the petition. Then in a five-page letter in October, he pointed out to Druzbick that most of the people who signed the petition had little to no contact with Beck in the workplace.
By the time he named all of the workers who didn't know or didn't work with Beck, just three names remained on the list. One was James Minnie, the worker who Beck was reprimanded over because he called him a name.
"The investigation ruled that name calling is a culture at Wiscon, that Mr. Minnie had in fact been called that same name by others,'' Mosley wrote. "Supervisors had joined the fray. Until Jim Beck used a common name for Mr. Minnie, department leaders have never attempted to put a stop to the name calling.''
Mosley asked county officials to investigate the petition, but that was not done. With the issue still unresolved and the tension remaining, Mosley wrote yet another letter to Druzbick earlier this month detailing the continuing problems.
"We believe that Mr. Beck's activity on the safety committee as well as him performing his duties as a union steward in monitoring Wiscon management's adherence to county policy, county safety rules, as well as the contract, is the real root of the problem,'' Mosley wrote, again requesting an investigation.
Mosley said this week that he has talked to employees who signed the petition who say now they wish they hadn't. At the time they were asked to sign, he said, there were other petition supporters around, and they felt pressured.
To Mosley, the unfair treatment Beck has received is symptomatic of a work culture that needs to change, especially now that the workers are backed by the Teamsters.
"I guess they don't like it when you point out all the things they were doing wrong,'' he said.
Managers at the Wiscon site, he said, "have been used to ruling the roost for too long with no dissension, and now people are standing up.''
Hamilton said he hopes the meetings with employees, which begin Monday and continue into the following week, will finally bring some solution to the divisions.
"What we will find, we do not know,'' he said. "I'm not going into this with any preconceived idea.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.