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Veteran claims discrimination at Bay Pines VA Medical Center

Tracy Kendall sits beneath his college diplomas at his home in Palm Harbor. The VA paid $65,300 for Kendall’s education and related costs, and he earned three degrees at St. Petersburg College.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Tracy Kendall sits beneath his college diplomas at his home in Palm Harbor. The VA paid $65,300 for Kendall’s education and related costs, and he earned three degrees at St. Petersburg College.

ST. PETERSBURG — Tracy Kendall was baffled when the Bay Pines VA Medical Center refused to hire him for an engineering technician's job.

Bay Pines admitted he was qualified. He should have been.

The Department of Veterans Affairs had paid $65,000 to train and educate the disabled veteran for just this sort of position. It's a program to help veterans land good jobs.

But Kendall said he believes a nonveteran was hired instead of him because she had something he didn't: a son and husband working in the same department doing the hiring.

In fact, the supervisor who made the pick acknowledged he shares an occasional after-hours beer with the son.

A year after a federal judge in Tampa scolded Bay Pines officials for their handling of employment discrimination cases, Bay Pines personnel practices have again come under scrutiny in a discrimination case Kendall filed last year.

Kendall accuses Bay Pines of hiring a far less experienced person, offering him a lesser-paid housekeeping job and then firing him in retaliation when he filed a complaint.

Bay Pines officials deny nepotism and discrimination, saying the person it hired was simply better qualified than Kendall. An administrative law judge in Miami agreed, ruling in favor of Bay Pines in an Aug. 25 decision.

But Kendall said a look at his case still raises questions about hiring at the nation's fifth-busiest veterans hospital.

"This sickens me," Kendall, 49, said in an interview last week. "They spent $65,000 to make me a smarter person, and the best they could do was hand me a mop. Then if you cry foul, they discredit you. They fire you."

• • •

In 2008 Kendall saw a job posting at Bay Pines for an engineering technician specializing as a draftsman. It paid up to $47,000. The Palm Harbor man met all the job requirements.

An Army injury in 1988 ended Kendall's military career, leading to numerous operations and two artificial knees. The VA certified the injuries as service-connected, qualifying Kendall for educational and training benefits.

Through a Bay Pines vocational program, the VA paid $65,300 for Kendall's education and related costs from 2002 onward. He earned three associate's degrees at St. Petersburg College in fields that including drafting, architecture and building design.

Kendall also had job experience that seemed to fit the position. He applied. Bay Pines said he qualified, but Kendall wasn't hired.

Someone at Bay Pines suggested another job to get his foot in the door: housekeeping. It was basically a janitorial job paying about $22,000.

This wasn't an office job. Kendall said he warned Bay Pines he could not mop floors or climb ladders with his bad knees. He said he was assured this posed no problem.

But Kendall said he was just days into his job in February 2009 when he was handed a mop and told to scrub a floor. Unable to comply, Kendall said he was sent home. Kendall filed for a formal "reasonable accommodation" to a physical disability.

Bay Pines would deny telling Kendall it could exempt him from some duties. Officials said he misled them by saying he could perform duties that he could not. They said he went AWOL after the mop incident. Kendall denied the charges.

An accommodation was refused.

So on March 6, 2009, Kendall filed the first of a series of employment discrimination complaints. On March 13, Bay Pines fired him. The VA denied this was retribution. The agency said Kendall simply could not physically perform his job.

His complaint came under the federal Equal Employment Opportunity system and was investigated.

Kendall then learned about the person who got the engineering technician's job instead of him.

He discovered the woman worked in housekeeping at Bay Pines when she was promoted into the engineering job. Kendall was enraged when he learned that her son and husband worked in the department doing the hiring. Bay Pines, he said, ignored a disabled veteran to help one of its own.

The woman's qualifications for an engineering technician's job are in dispute. Bay Pines says she had extensive private-sector experience and met all qualifications. The VA said she would hit the ground running faster than Kendall.

But she had no college training. Kendall said her work experience didn't seem to fit engineering duties and were more secretarial and administrative.

Kendall's attorney, Joe Magri of Tampa, also argued that her application was incomplete, and far less detailed than Kendall's.

Kendall was especially bothered by a box checked on the woman's application saying she should get a hiring preference as a disabled veteran. She wasn't a veteran.

The woman later denied checking the box and didn't know why it had been marked.

Bay Pines would not allow interviews with workers involved in this case. Bay Pines human resources chief Paula Buchele said that all job candidates were treated fairly.

Hiring the relatives of VA employees is not prohibited, she said. And as an existing VA employee, the woman was not barred from seeking a better job at Bay Pines.

While disabled veterans like Kendall can be given preference in some jobs, Buchele said, such was not the case with the engineering technician's position.

"In reviewing the file in this case, it appears the best qualified candidate was selected," Buchele said.

• • •

On a weekend in May 2009, Kendall knocked on the door of a house in an upscale suburb of Washington. He wanted to ask for help from the one person outranking everyone at Bay Pines.

He knocked on the door of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Kendall said he worked in the same office as Shinseki years ago when both men served in the Army. They had known each other casually, he said.

Kendall said he found the address on the Web, no easy feat with a Cabinet member.

Shinseki opened the door and invited Kendall inside to talk, Kendall said.

A VA spokeswoman did not respond to a request to interview Shinseki for this story. But a letter sent to Kendall from Bay Pines director Wallace Hopkins confirmed that Kendall did talk to the secretary.

Kendall said Shinseki promised to "turn over every small pebble" to get something done to help him.

Kendall said the promise has proved empty. But he said Shinseki did accomplish one thing:

His address was removed from the Web site where Kendall found it.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3432.

Veteran claims discrimination at Bay Pines VA Medical Center 09/25/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 25, 2010 10:08pm]

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