AUGUSTA — The state’s largest agency may include “unfit” supervisors and the occasional “despicable” boss, but most employees of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services are satisfied with the workplace culture.

A recent report issued by the nonpartisan Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability received close scrutiny from the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee on Friday.

The report detailed several key findings and 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 brought a federal whistle-blower 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 that the department was taking the report to heart. But some key issues, including concerns that employees were not being recognized adequately for work well-done, would be difficult to fix, he said.

Adolphsen said union contracts prohibited giving cash bonuses to good workers, and that 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 autopilot, so it was hard to distinguish between one specific person really going above and beyond everyone else.”

Adolphsen said those and other issues in the report were things the department had already started to improve upon based on an internal survey of employees that was initiated well before the controversy. Adolphsen noted that of the 3,000 employees in the agency, 18 had lodged serious complaints about their treatment in the workplace.

Committee members noted that based on some written comments they received on the report from employees, DHHS workers on occasion were subjected to abusive behavior by supervisors “unfit” for the job.

State 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.”

Johnson asked Adolphsen, “Is that something you would want to continue in your department?”

It wasn’t, Adolphsen said. “I think that behavior is despicable.”  

Adolphsen said DHHS administrators had received similar complaints and others, including that one employee regularly came to work “inebriated.”

The report also found long-standing morale issues within the department, as well as concern among workers that they received ineffective communications from supervisors and managers.

Adolphsen detailed several ongoing efforts aimed at improving relations across the department. He noted a new training program for supervisors that would be designed by the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Service and would be implemented soon.

At least one lawmaker on the committee took exception to some of Adolphsen’s testimony around the barriers labor contracts presented in terms of impeding executive managers’ ability to effect change more quickly.

State Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, said as a former local school committee member that she has been involved in contract disputes and termination of contracted workers. 

“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,” Mastraccio said. “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 of the department’s workers. 

Adolphsen reminded the panel that the overall results showed 75 percent of the department’s employees were satisfied with the way they were treated by their direct supervisors. The report also showed that 64 percent were satisfied with the atmosphere fostered by management.

The department’s termination rate for workers was 10 percent, slightly above the average of 9 percent for all state departments but well below the 16 percent average for government workers nationwide.

[email protected]


Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: