November 19, 2019

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Drinking and driving, sleeping on the job

Current, former civic employees say misconduct rampant, malingering culture entrenched

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/4/2019 (216 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/4/2019 (216 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Allegations of widespread misconduct among inspectors in Winnipeg’s planning, property and development department may be just the tip of the iceberg, as whistleblowers are stepping forward to sound the alarm about problems that extend elsewhere in the municipal workforce.

Two people — the Free Press has agreed not to name them— are speaking out about their experiences working in three departments under the public works umbrella during the past decade. One is a current employee and the other twice worked as a summer contractor for the city.

Surveillance footage of City of Winnipeg planning, property and development department employee shopping at Costco.

Surveillance footage of City of Winnipeg planning, property and development department employee shopping at Costco.

They describe a culture of short, lackadaisical workdays peppered with frequent, lengthy coffee breaks and extended lunches, and one where fireable offences — including sleeping, drinking alcohol on the job and theft or misuse of equipment — are rife.

"I’m sure that you know, and the majority of people know, what we actually do. It goes beyond the planning, property and development department... I’m really tired of not feeling productive. I just want to do a good job and feel good about my day," said the current employee.

The conduct of municipal workers has been thrust into the spotlight in the wake of a Free Press report on a private investigation — bankrolled by a group of frustrated taxpayers — of building inspectors in the planning, property and development department.

The results of the investigation — which was documented in video, photos and notes that were shared with the Free Press for review — indicated only one of 17 inspectors placed under surveillance was consistently putting in an honest day’s work.

The city quickly launched an internal probe into the accusations.

The former summer employee agreed to speak to the Free Press after seeing the newspaper's initial report outlining the $18,000 private investigation's findings. Although he now works in the private sector, he spent two summers working for the city’s parks department.

He said he wasn't surprised by the findings.

"Not at all," he said, laughing. "I thought it was common knowledge."

During the time he was employed by the city, he said work crews would gather at headquarters at 7:30 a.m., before heading out to a coffee shop for breakfast.

The City of Winnipeg Planning Property and Development offices at 65 Garry Street.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The City of Winnipeg Planning Property and Development offices at 65 Garry Street.

"We’d take our time there. Our actual coffee break was supposed to be at 9:30 (a.m.). But by the time we got coffee in the morning and got ready and got to the work site, it was pretty much coffee (break), so we’d repeat the process again," he said.

"I feel dirty even just saying this stuff. There was a lot of driving around. There were people who definitely drove around the entire day and did nothing. Or you could sleep in the back of the truck. There wasn’t any supervision."

What shocked him the most, however, was the number of people — in multiple departments — routinely consuming alcohol on the job. He said employees would go drinking every Friday afternoon during both of the summers he worked for the city.

"There was a specific Boston Pizza they’d go to. Guys would go there and would easily have 10 to a dozen beers, hop right back into their city trucks, then drive back completely loaded. You’d see 10 separate trucks go out and you’d know that all 10 of them are super drunk," he said.

"I know some of the higher-ups were aware of this because some of them were present sometimes. I’m pretty confident it’s just as prevalent as it was before, considering all the same people still work there."

The current employee said he's also aware of colleagues who regularly drink on the job, adding some of them talk openly about it. He independently made many of the same workplace misconduct allegations as the former summer worker.

City weighing need for transparency against inspectors' rights in advance of internal probe report

City officials aren’t yet saying how much detail they’re prepared to release in the fallout from an internal probe into allegations of wrongful behaviour by its building inspectors.

CAO Doug McNeil said he supports a motion that was unanimously approved by executive policy committee Tuesday calling on the release of a “full and detailed report” within 30 days of the investigation closing.

But he said the city will be consulting its human relations and labour relations divisions as to how much detail can be disclosed, including the nature of the wrongdoing and the type of discipline imposed.

City officials aren’t yet saying how much detail they’re prepared to release in the fallout from an internal probe into allegations of wrongful behaviour by its building inspectors.

CAO Doug McNeil said he supports a motion that was unanimously approved by executive policy committee Tuesday calling on the release of a “full and detailed report” within 30 days of the investigation closing.

But he said the city will be consulting its human relations and labour relations divisions as to how much detail can be disclosed, including the nature of the wrongdoing and the type of discipline imposed.

“We have to be careful in terms of what we can release publicly,” McNeil told reporters. “The public does need to know what happened.”

The internal probe was prompted by an investigation launched by about a dozen citizens and business owners who were frustrated with the poor response from the city’s building inspections division. The group, whose members remain anonymous, hired a local private investigation firm to monitor the daily work routines of 17 inspectors in the planning, property and development department and found that all but one of them put in an average of just three hours of work each day.

Videos, photos and notes shared with the Free Press revealed the inspectors took long lunches and spent time on personal activities — including shopping and clearing their own driveways of snow — during work hours.

The city launched its internal probe within hours of the Free Press publishing the investigation findings on April 4.

An email to council members April 5 revealed that the city’s labour relations division is heading the probe, which began last week with a round of interviews of affected individuals.

McNeil said that while the private investigation focused only on 17 inspectors, the city is interviewing “dozens” of employees because the group refuses to share its findings with city hall.

“The whole idea is to figure out what (the inspectors have) been doing — do they go home early or whatever the case may be. A lot of probing questions to find out what their activities have been,” McNeil said, adding the probe will try to verify the employees’ responses using data obtained from their cellphones, tablets and interviews with people and companies whose properties were being inspected during the workday.

McNeil said a second round of interviews with some city staff could be held depending on the initial findings. He also said the police may be contacted at the conclusion of the probe if the findings warrant, but he said it’s still too early to make that determination.

The group has refused to meet with city officials and release the private investigation firm's findings, out of concern members would be subject to retaliation.

Mayor Brian Bowman told reporters he is urging the group to present its findings to the city but if the members continue to refuse yet insist on an independent investigation, they should take the information to the provincial Ombudsman, who could guarantee their anonymity while looking into their concerns.

aldo.santin@freepress.mb.ca

He stressed that anyone who speaks out against the entrenched workplace culture is ostracized by co-workers for rocking the boat, and claims management and supervisors are well aware of what’s going on.

"It’s not just theft of time. There’s a ridiculous amount of actual theft that happens. Nobody cares because the people in charge are doing it themselves... I’ve been in a department where they purposely try to do the work slower and inefficiently," he said.

"What did you guys get accomplished this week? What did you do? Nobody asks those questions, because nobody cares. Anyone could come in and see the inefficiencies and it wouldn’t take some big, crazy investigation."

The allegations made by the current employee and former summer worker were sent to the city for comment.

"The city has a workforce of over 10,000 individuals who we believe take pride in their work and the services they provide to the people of Winnipeg. We take these types of allegations seriously and we encourage people to come forward if they have concerns," a city spokesman said in a written statement.

"It’s important that concerns are received and responded to when presented to the city. There are a number of ways that an individual, including current or former city employees, can voice any concerns with confidence and anonymity."

The situation unfolding in Winnipeg is similar to revelations that surfaced in Hamilton in 2013. After growing suspicious public works employees weren’t putting in a full day's work, the city hired a private investigations firm.

The surveillance led to the mass firing of 29 employees after revealing they were engaging in workplace misconduct similar to what’s been alleged against the Winnipeg building inspectors.

That led to a two-year arbitration — costing the City of Hamilton more than $500,000 — that resulted in 15 of the dismissed workers being reinstated.

The arbitrator ruled that while the workers were guilty of serious workplace misconduct, there was such a "culture of low expectations" due to a "failure of management" they shouldn’t be singled out for punishment.

The arbitrator said it was "plainly evident had anyone taken the opportunity to examine how the asphalt crews did their jobs" the extent of the misconduct would have been clear, adding the surveillance operation revealed little not available from the GPS tracking data on city trucks.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman told the Free Press he’s pleased the Canadian Union of Public Employees — which represents the inspectors in the planning, property and development department — is taking part in the city’s internal probe into the accusations.

"If the allegations that I’ve seen are in fact true then, absolutely, there are a number of individuals who shouldn’t be working for the City of Winnipeg and should find employment elsewhere," he said.

The current city employee who spoke to the Free Press, however, said he doesn't expect the internal probe will lead to much action, if any.

"I don’t think the investigation will turn up much. They’ll find a way to justify all of these things we do. To be honest, I’ve been considering quitting because the job is making me that unhappy," he said.

"When you go to the supervisor and point out the inefficiencies or some of the things that are going on, they tell you, ‘That’s not your job. Don’t worry about it.’ It’s like, technically I’m a taxpayer — we all are. So why am I the only one who seems to care?"

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe
Reporter

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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