AUGUSTA, Maine — A recent report on the workplace culture and environment for workers within the state’s largest agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, received close scrutiny from the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee on Friday.
The report issued by the committee’s investigative arm, the nonpartisan Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, detailed several key findings but also made recommendations for change and improvement within the sprawling department that has offices across the state and includes more than 3,000 employees.
The committee ordered the investigation after a scandal in 2013 involving an employee who ultimately brought a federal whistleblower lawsuit against supervisors at the Maine Center for Disease Control, charging she was harassed and threatened after she refused to destroy a set of public records that had been requested by the Sun Journal.
Sam Adolphsen, DHHS’s chief operating officer and effectively the department’s deputy commissioner, told the oversight panel Friday the department was taking the report to heart. But Adolphsen also said several key issues in the report, including one detailing concerns employees were not being recognized adequately for work well done, would be hard to fix.
Adolphsen said union contracts prohibited giving cash bonuses to good workers and a system of seniority requirements for promotion to supervisory roles occasionally resulted in untrained and unqualified individuals being placed in charge of others.
“There is a merit structure in the current contracted employment where if an individual achieves their merit they get their pay,” Adolphsen said. “What we’ve found was in the past that was mostly on auto-pilot, so it was hard to distinguish between on specific person really going above and beyond everyone else.”
Adolphsen said those and other issues in the report were things the department already started working to improve, based on its own internal survey of employees that was initiated well before the controversy. Adolphsen also noted that, of the agency’s 3,000 employees, only 18 lodged serious complaints regarding their treatment in the workplace.
Committee members also noted that, based on some written comments they received on the report from employees, there were occasions when DHHS workers were subjected to abusive behaviors by supervisors, “unfit” for the job.
Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Somerville, said one worker reported a supervisor who would, “on a frequent and regular basis, go into a conference room with someone else and yell at them at the top of their voice and loudly enough that other people could hear it all around.”
“Is that something you would want to continue in your department?” Johnson asked Adolphsen.
It wasn’t, Adolphsen said. “I think that behavior is despicable,” he said.
Adolphsen said DHHS administrators had received similar complaints and others, including that some employees regularly came to work “inebriated.”
The report also found long-standing morale problems within the department and a concern among workers over ineffective communications from supervisors and managers.
Adolphsen also detailed several ongoing efforts aimed at improving relations across the department. He also noted a new training program for supervisors that would be designed by the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service and implemented soon.
At least one lawmaker on the committee took exception to some of Adolphsen’s testimony about the barriers labor contracts presented in terms of impeding executive managers’ ability to effect change more quickly.
“I have been in those positions, and I know what contracts look like. And there are activities and actions that make you be able to skip steps,” said Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, a former school board member who has experience negotiating with teachers unions. “Honestly, it is about a supervisor being able to do their job and do it the right way.”
She said the rules and contract provisions are there to protect all the department’s workers.
Adolphsen also said the department’s own survey of workers followed by the committee’s investigation of workplace culture in the department were the first of their kind in Maine.
He reminded the panel that the overall results, while no comparison within Maine state government, did show the bulk of the department’s employees, 75 percent of them, voiced satisfaction with the way they were treated by their direct supervisors.
The report also showed that 64 percent said they were satisfied with the atmosphere fostered by management.
Meanwhile, the department’s termination rate for workers was 10 percent slightly above the average rate of 9 percent for all state departments but well below the 16 percent average rate for all government workers nationwide.