Kellie McLean’s staff at the Durham Parks and Recreation Department loves her. Her bosses, not so much.
In late September, seventeen employees in the DPR’s school-age-care unit sent a letter to city manager Thomas Bonfield, complaining about the “constant eroding of our working conditions, increased hostility, and alarming employee turnover that is having a major impact on the programs we provide to the children we work with.”
A “central part of this whole situation,” the employees wrote, involved “unjustified criticisms” leveled against McLean, a master program specialist, “primarily by [care program administrator] Danielle Haynes, but also supported and other management.”
McLean didn’t sign the letter, but she told the INDY last week that Haynes subjected her to harsh discipline, unfair criticism, and unfair personnel evaluations.
Prior to this year, she says, her evaluations always said that she met or exceeded expectations. But in January, Haynes—who’d been granted additional authority following a 2018 reorganization, said she was “minimally effective.”
Later, after Haynes chastised McLean because one of her staffers didn’t fine a parent who picked up a child late, McLean went to DPR assistant director Joy Guy to complain, both about that and about ten-hour days with no lunch break.
But Guy, she says, “started yelling at me.”
She filed a complaint. After that, she says, Haynes ordered her to go see human resources.
“When I asked her why, she said, ‘You’ll find out when you get there,’” McLean says.
HR, she says, ordered her to see a psychiatrist.
“I was told I might harm myself, or might be using drugs or alcohol,” McLean says. “I was being referred to a therapist, and if I did not go, I would be penalized because my supervisor made it mandatory. The therapist said I had a healthy outlook, and I was stressed not by the job, but behind what I had been enduring from Danielle.”
She’s not alone, she says. In the last two years, eleven full-time staff members have quit in a department of three-dozen staffers.
In response to the INDY’s requests for comment from DPR director Rhonda Parker, city public affairs director Beverly K. Thompson emailed Monday: “This city is still investigating the matter you referenced and, since it is a personnel-related matter, we’re (all involved employees) not at liberty to discuss it.”
In an email, Bonfield says that although the employees’ letter wasn’t a formal grievance, he forwarded it to Regina Youngblood, the director of human resources. He says the “city takes all complaints and employee concerns related to [a] hostile work environment seriously and fully investigates them,” adding that “there is not any information regarding findings of this investigation to share at this point.”
Dante Strobino, an organizer for UE 150, which represents city employees, says Bonfield is “completely dismissive of the scope of the problem. He is treating each of these cases, impacting over twenty-five workers and hundreds of children, as if it is an individual, one-on-one personnel matter to be solved by human resources.”
Key to the problem, the workers say, is the city’s grievance policy, which only covers claims related to termination, suspension without pay, or demotion. It does not cover harassment, health and safety issues, employee evaluations, or written warnings.
Strobino says that Youngblood “gutted the whole grievance procedure” soon after she became HR director in 2014.
“The first thing she did was roll back city workers’ grievance rights,” says Sarah Vukelich, chief steward for the UE 150. “There are no grievance rights for harassment, bullying.”
Although city policy forbids retaliation that targets employees who participate in the grievance process, Vukelich says those who file complaints often face retaliation and have no recourse.
In practice, Strobino says, “the city is more interested in blaming the workers for the problems, rather than addressing the root causes, which are abusive management and lack of a strong grievance policy.” All eleven employees who left filed complaints, Strobino says, but HR did nothing with that information.
Because they think the system is broken, the workers say, one of their demands is that someone outside of HR investigate their complaints. The letter singles out three managers—Haynes, Guy, and Parker—they say should be disciplined, perhaps fired, for allegedly creating a hostile work environment.
“We don’t trust anyone in Durham Parks and Recreation or Human Resources to do an honest and complete investigation or make appropriate suggested changes,” the workers told Bonfield.
“There’s a close relationship between human resources, the supervisors, and the department heads,” Vukelich says. “Human resources protects them rather than protect the workers.”
The letter also asks the city to bring the department back up to full staffing and rehire the people who resigned “as a result of this hostile climate.”
The workers’ next move is to garner community support. That effort began at Monday night’s city council meeting.
In tears, McLean shared her story with council members, telling them about her sleepless nights and anxiety, about co-workers who are now undergoing therapy. She was accompanied by about thirty current and former DPR employees in the audience.
Deputy city manager Bo Ferguson assured the council that the matter was under investigation, but he said that, as a personnel matter, it shouldn’t be discussed publicly.
For McLean and other employees in the audience, however, this isn’t a personnel matter. It’s a matter of fairness and equity.
And for Demario Jennette, one of the DPR employees who resigned, having a strong parks and rec department could be a matter of life and death.
Jennette grew up in Durham public housing, he says, and first got involved with DPR when he was fourteen. He credits the department with helping to save his life. Too many of the friends he grew up with are dead or in jail, he says. Parks and rec offered him an escape.
Working for the school-age-care unit gave him a chance to provide young people with the same creative outlets that inspired him.
Blaming unfair working conditions and disciplinary practices, he resigned on August 20, 2018.
“We are going to let it be known as a public issue and a public concern,” Vukelich says. “We are going to increase the pressure.”
Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at email@example.com. This story has been updated and edited for print.
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