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Vero city workers get demerits for using sick time

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of January 5, 2012)

With Vero Beach facing the need to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars to retiring city workers who saved up their sick time instead of using it, you might think the city now would be encouraging municipal employees to take sick days when they are sick instead of banking them. Wrong. 

In fact, it turns out the easiest way for a Vero Beach employee to get an “unsatisfactory” rating on the city’s newly instituted performance reviews is to have used 10 days or more of sick time in the past year.

This was the strangest discovery made when Vero Beach 32963 went over the first 97 performance reviews ever conducted of Vero City employees who are not part of the police department.  The reviews were conducted during the fourth quarter, and the remaining 353 Vero city workers will have their reviews between now and September.

The review form provides supervisors space to give employees excellent, satisfactory or unsatisfactory ratings in 11 key job performance areas. Those areas include job knowledge and skills, reliability, safety, quality and quantity of work, cooperation, initiative, decision making, communication and leadership. Each employee also gets an overall rating.

Employees were repeatedly marked down for using their sick time and praised for avoiding the use of sick time. The city gives employees a base of 10 sick days per year and many long-time employees have weeks – if not months – of sick time banked.  But while there was talk last year of requiring workers to “use it or lose it,” the review instructs supervisors to categorize an employee as “unsatisfactory” for using 10 or more days of sick time.

The second most common complaint of supervisors found in the reviews was lack of initiative. Employees were described as having excellent knowledge of what needed to be done, but often lacking the initiative to find faster, cheaper or more efficient ways of doing it. Some employees who had been on the job for decades were criticized for needing to be told what to do and when to do it.

Overall, of those reviewed, 25 were rated excellent with 71 getting satisfactory ratings. Only one received an unsatisfactory rating.  Four department heads out of 14 were reviewed.

Public Works Director Monte Falls, a 20-year employee who also filled in as interim city manager for more than half the year reviewed, received stellar ratings.

"You have been invaluable during the transition and your support has made the organization continue to work at a high level," City Manager Jim O'Connor wrote on the back of the two-page review form.

Electric Transmission and Distribution Director Randall McCamish, hired in 1987, also got excellent scores overall, with a note from O'Connor that he could stand to improve on communication.

"More information is better than not enough," O'Connor wrote in the comments section, also praising McCamish as a "problem solver."

Finance Director Cindy Lawson, O'Connor's first hire before he even got to town, was evaluated on her first five months on the job and got excellent marks.

"We are now in the decision-making process on the Florida Power and Light issue as well as the annual audit and Government Finance Officers Association submittal. Keep moving in the direction we have set and meet the timelines that have been and will be established," O'Connor wrote.

Water and Sewer Director Rob Bolton – who has been described by members of the current City Council as an impediment to progress and transparency – received a satisfactory review. The comments noted by O'Connor showed that Bolton, who just completed 11 years on the job, has not made many points with his new boss.

"Rob, the major shortcoming is when advice or recommendations are given, you do not provide all the details. The complete picture is important," O'Connor wrote.

"You have improved in your presentations and you now show a little humility, which is important when addressing elected bodies," O'Connor continued.

Most department heads did not take advantage of the opportunity to set goals for their employees, but a few made notes of upcoming challenges or areas needing improvement, setting the bar for the next review.

On Bolton's evaluation form, O'Connor wrote, "Work toward providing information using strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats in your responses. Expedite the optimization efforts in water and wastewater."