Friday, October 10, 2008

Atlanta-area 911 center has too few people and lax supervision

A supervisor told 911 worker JoLynn Griffin she didn’t have any days off left for vacation. The Fulton County, Georgia emergency center had barely enough workers to cover shifts.

But Griffin went on a cruise anyway. She returned to find her job waiting, just as it had been when she’d missed work before.

Chronic absenteeism and tardiness are among the center’s most vexing problems, accounting for roughly a quarter of all personnel infractions and aggravating a staffing shortage that can mean marathon shifts for the dispatchers who do show up.

Griffin is one of scores of Fulton 911 employees who racked up roughly 280 sanctions for arriving late or not at all — often on multiple days — a database of personnel actions since January 2004 reveals. The problem is likely worse; officials say their data is not comprehensive.

No-shows were counseled, warned and occasionally suspended. But they were rarely fired. Some workers accumulated long disciplinary histories that included 911 call errors as well as absences, and they weren’t terminated. “It appears that certain violations of performance were tolerated or forgiven, for lack of a better word, in order to maintain the staffing required to operate the center,” said Lynne Riley, a Fulton commissioner.

Losing trained employees wasn’t an attractive option for the 911 center. In recent weeks, as many as a third of the center’s total positions have sat vacant.

Deputy County Manager Rob Hernandez said staffing shortages are common at 911 centers, but Fulton’s needs to train more new workers and improve retention. A county consultant should address discipline problems such as absenteeism, he said. “In general, discipline was used like a tool — a management tool — rather than as a last resort,” he said. “It may have lost its intended effect.”

At least eight 911 workers have been sanctioned 10 or more times for playing hooky or walking in late since 2004. Migraines, oversleeping and not feeling well were regular excuses. Employees also blamed a pet illness, panic attack, traffic, getting back in town late, driving a child to school, car problems and a broken toilet.

Even current center director Crystal Williams has filed her share of tardy slips, records show, citing late starts, trouble finding parking, feeling ill and, on at least three days, alarm clock malfunctions. Former 911 center employees said chronic tardiness and absenteeism led to feuding among staffers.

Cassandra Eloi said that during her year at the center it was common to be held over for extra work because others failed to show. Those who did come in often worked 12 to 16 hours straight, she said. “You are running a 911 center on minimal staffing every day,” said Eloi, who was fired for being rude to callers. “You have calls holding. You have calls dropping, every day.”

Griffin left without permission for the cruise and two other short vacations between September 2003 and March 2004 — in addition to taking dozens of sick days and showing up late at least 14 times, records show. Alfred “Rocky” Moore, the center’s director at the time, wrote in a March 2004 letter that he was considering dismissing her. “Your personal vacation [cruise] did not justify an emergency vacation,” he wrote.

But Griffin hung on, volunteering for a demotion instead. Her tardiness continued. One night in January 2006, the call center sent a Fulton sheriff’s car to pick her up for work because she had car trouble, records show. Later that year, she was suspended after supervisors said an error she made delayed response to a fire call.

She took disability retirement in mid-2007.

Griffin, a 23-year center veteran who was called “an excellent supervisor” in a 1995 job review, said in an interview she disputes that she caused a delay on the fire call, or that her unpaid leave resulted in a staffing shortage that couldn’t be covered. She said she was singled out for infractions that others — including supervisors — also committed. She felt Moore had a grudge against her. “There was no reason to deny me,” Griffin said of her vacation requests. “It’s not like I didn’t do my share of covering for people, either.”

Other workers also complained discipline was not handed out evenly. Morale was low. After a supervisor threatened one employee with suspension for tardiness, she responded: “go ahead and suspend me that’s one less day that I have to work here.” (info from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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