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Former Sunken Gardens employee says she was fired for being a whistle-blower

ST. PETERSBURG — Joyce Lopez complained about the work ethic of her Sunken Gardens co-workers in late August.

By Dec. 1, she was out of a job.

City officials said Lopez committed a series of grave errors and demonstrated inappropriate behavior that resulted in her unemployment. The final straw came when she neglected to add a wedding to the event facility's calender, leaving the maintenance crew scrambling to turn off the garden's sprinkler system as guests unexpectedly began arriving one Friday evening.

Lopez, however, says she was punished for being a whistle-blower. She called her co-workers out for coming and going as they pleased, giving friends discounts and treating her with hostility. Her comments were unwelcome, she said, and eventually left her unemployed.

The city counters that Lopez, 33, only made the accusations when she was disciplined for taking improper leave.

The city's civilian review board recently took 10 hours to sift through the testimony from both sides to decide whether Lopez's termination should be upheld. It ruled 4-0 in the city's favor. But the case may not be over. Lopez is considering a lawsuit.

Lopez, who started in the city's downtown facilities department in 2005, received positive performance reviews and became fast friends with her co-workers, who threw her a baby shower after she got pregnant in 2008.

But the friendships seemed to have soured when Lopez returned to work after taking a three-month maternity leave, according to labor complaints Lopez filed with the city.

"Things seemed different," Lopez wrote in her formal complaint, "almost as if they were surprised that I was still around and not saying anything about resigning."

She said her supervisor, Lauren Kleinfield, repeatedly asked whether Lopez was going to quit to stay home with her newborn. Meanwhile, Kleinfield allowed another employee to routinely arrive late, take long lunches, leave early and run personal errands, all the while reporting full shifts on her time sheets, Lopez complained.

The same employee also rented a $1,500 event space to a friend for $50 and made excessive personal calls, Lopez claimed.

Lopez took leave again in April to care for her sick father. At that point she hadn't shared her concerns with anyone.

It was only when she was disciplined for not correctly filling out her leave paperwork that she complained.

Her accusations were met with skepticism and raised eyebrows.

"You have to wonder how Ms. Lopez was doing her own job if she was making color-coded calenders listing who her co-worker was talking to and what she was doing," said assistant city attorney Pam Cichon.

The city's internal investigation determined that Kleinfield shouldn't have made comments about Lopez resigning. It also found that the other employee's personal phone calls could be considered inappropriate. That employee's irregular comings and goings also incited debate.

Unlike most city employees, Sunken Gardens staffers, who often work night and weekend events, are allowed flexibility with comp time. However, no one tracks how many hours each employee actually works.

Neither Kleinfield nor the employee was disciplined.

Cichon said the timing of Lopez's complaints hurt her credibility. She wasn't looking out for the city's bottom line. She was being malicious, Cichon said.

"She was in trouble and tried to bring her fellow co-workers down with her," Cichon argued during the Jan. 26 board hearing reviewing Lopez's dismissal.

"You are not protected when you are relaying gossip," Cichon added.

James Sheehan, Lopez's lawyer, said Lopez was too afraid to come forward earlier.

"It is the time when you have nothing to lose," said Sheehan, of Tampa.

Sheehan said he has represented dozens of employees unfairly terminated by the city in recent years. The city's review board usually finds the terminations just, he said.

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Former Sunken Gardens employee says she was fired for being a whistle-blower 02/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 6, 2010 3:31am]
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