Fired Hernando County utilities employee gets his job back

BROOKSVILLE — A controversial county utilities worker who was fired for falsifying his application will get his job back, but it will be in a different department.

The employee will not, however, get back pay for the 11 months since he was terminated.

Those rulings came down earlier this month from an arbitrator hearing the case in which Teamsters Local 79 challenged the firing of James Beck. With the outcome, both the county and the union are claiming victory.

When Beck applied for his county job more than five years ago, he failed to include his stint as a substitute teacher with the Hernando County schools. He told officials he didn't think it was relevant.'

In fact, he never had hidden his short time in the classroom from his county co-workers, some of whom joked about his teaching experience. Beck had been terminated from the teaching job "for physical contact and language used with a student,'' according to the county's investigation.''

The discovery of the discrepancy coincided with an uproar over Beck at the Wiscon Road county utilities office. There, Beck, who was the union steward for the site, was involved in a series of incidents.

In September 2010, 46 of the 116 workers at the facility had signed a petition denouncing Beck and accusing him of constant disruption and destroying employee morale. The union called for a full investigation, arguing that Beck was merely pointing out safety and rule violations; that upset management and the nonunion employees who backed management, the union claimed.

None of the workers who signed the petition were members of the union, and officials reported a divide between workers who were and those who were not members.

That divide was confirmed by the results of a county "climate survey'' at the facility. During that exercise, officials discovered the gap in employment history in Beck's original application. He was placed on leave, then fired a few days later.

He challenged the move with help from the Teamsters. The case landed before the arbitrator on Sept. 14.

"The county is delighted with the arbitration award,'' assistant county attorney Jon Jouben wrote in an email Tuesday. "The county was victorious on all of the substantive issues.''

Jouben said the arbitrator determined that "Mr. Beck had falsified his job application in 2005 and that the county was justified in terminating Mr. Beck for that reason'' and also "rejected Mr. Beck's allegation that the county's stated reason for terminating him was a pretext for firing him in retaliation for his serving as a union steward.''

In his ruling, arbitrator James J. Brady determined that Beck's history of past disciplinary infractions were relevant to the case.

Those infractions "provide evidence of the problems engendered in the wastewater unit by grievant's irascible and boorish behavior,'' he wrote. "While there appears to be a divide between the union and nonunion employees in the unit, I am less convinced that grievant's union activities served as a 'lightning rod' than his 'in your face' approach to his co-workers.

"Thus, I do not agree with the union's contention that grievant was treated in a disparate manner by the county because of his active union representation.''

But the arbitrator did find that the firing was too strong a penalty for Beck's omission of his substitute teacher experience from his application.

"Because the county failed to adequately 'vet' grievant's 2005 application and because grievant never had lied about his school board experience after being hired, it is my view that grievant's termination be reduced to a suspension without back pay and benefits with the following proviso,'' Brady wrote.

"First, grievant should be reassigned, if possible, to a different department in a position meeting his qualifications. Secondly, as a suggestion, until he receives some training in communications skills, he should be removed from his position as an alternative steward by the union.''

Opting for a lesser penalty was not unexpected, Jouben said.

"The county anticipated that Professor Brady might reduce Mr. Beck's discipline from termination to a suspension. Pursuant to the county's progressive discipline policy, Mr. Beck's actions constituted grounds for either termination or a suspension,'' Jouben said.

He noted that the county also prevailed in Beck's claim for unemployment benefits and that "Brady specifically found that Mr. Beck was not entitled to back pay or benefits. As Mr. Beck was terminated on January 11, 2011, Professor Brady has effectively given Mr. Beck an eleven-month, unpaid disciplinary suspension.''

Beck has declined to comment throughout the controversy, allowing the union to speak for him.

Teamsters business agent Steve Mosley had a very different take on the ruling than Jouben.

"What the county was trying to do was to terminate Jim Beck. What the union was trying to do was to put Jim Beck back to work. The undeniable result was that the arbitrator ordered Mr. Beck back to work,'' Mosley said.

"To say the county is delighted with the award and was victorious on all the substantive issues is a very unique self-serving spin. The way to put it is they won some battles but the final result was they lost the war,'' he said. "Mr. Beck is going back to work for Hernando County.''

Jouben confirmed that the county will comply with the recommendation to place Beck into a position outside the department of environmental services.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Fired Hernando County utilities employee gets his job back 12/23/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 23, 2011 4:32pm]

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