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Jefferson County dispatcher resigns, cites workplace stress, hostility

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WATERTOWN — A Jefferson County emergency dispatcher resigned last week, citing stress from a lack of manpower and excessive overtime, and said she has lodged an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint alleging she was denied reasonable accommodation for a work-related medical condition.

“I want to state that the 911 dispatch center has sadly become a place of hostility, with co-workers turning against each other,” Annette M. Docteur wrote in a letter dated May 9 and obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Staffing levels at the center were a subject of debate in November, with factions of the county Board of Legislators split over hiring additional dispatchers to reduce the need for overtime at the dispatch center. A compromise was reached and money was included in the budget to fund an additional position as of Jan. 1.

Employees who work at the center said that they were grateful for the help but that it wasn’t enough to resolve the situation.

“We certainly appreciate the one employee, but we are a 24/7 operation and unfortunately one person isn’t going to make enough of a difference for the relief we’ve been seeking,” senior dispatcher Gail M. Sovie said at the time.

Mrs. Docteur started working at the dispatch center on Jan. 1, 2006, according to Jefferson County Human Resources Director Valerie M. Borland.

Her resignation after eight years, which was effective Friday, picked up on the themes discussed in November but with an added twist — allegations that management refused to accommodate what she described as a reasonable treatment of a medical condition. The stressful working environment brought on the health problem, said Mrs. Docteur, who did not elaborate on her condition.

She said that after consulting several doctors, she was given a prescription and a note that restricted her from driving or working eight to 10 hours after taking her medication.

According to Mrs. Docteur, Jefferson County Emergency Management Director Joseph D. Plummer and Deputy Director Frederick D. Lampman did not accept her doctor’s orders and told her to either get a note from her doctor rescinding the order or take alternative medication.

Mrs. Docteur said that she then left work and did not return for two months, using all of her sick time and some of her vacation time while other dispatch employees worked overtime to cover her shifts before the county legislators interceded on her behalf.

Upon returning to work, Mrs. Docteur said, she found the work environment intolerable and decided to resign after filing a complaint with the EEOC.

As of Wednesday, Mrs. Borland said, her office has received no notification of any charge from the agency.

Mrs. Docteur attributed the source of the “hostility” to which she alluded in her letter to the excessive amounts of overtime that people at the center are forced to work because of the staff size, which she said was too small.

“When you work that many hours, eventually it’s going to wreak havoc,” she said.

She also faulted Mr. Plummer and Mr. Lampman for a management style that she said was authoritarian and unreasonable.

Mr. Plummer declined to comment on the situation.

During the debate about hiring additional dispatchers in late 2013, a document presented to legislators by Jefferson County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III revealed that the number of overtime hours accumulated by the 24 dispatchers who work at the center that year ranged from 40.25 to 348.75.

The apportionment of hours is based on seniority, but the amount of overtime varied widely among the employees.

According to an accounting taken in December, the highest number of overtime hours, 348.75, went to an employee who had been with the center for 26 years, while the second highest number, 206.75, went to a dispatcher with only four years of service.

“Some people are ramping up retirement,” Mrs. Docteur said. “Others live outside their means and need the OT. The more they take, the more they leave us with the overtime nobody wants — holidays, Friday nights, Saturday nights. It’s all about seniority.”

In New York, public pensions are based on an employee’s top three earning years.

Mrs. Docteur said that while she would await the results of an EEOC action, she was moving on from her job at the dispatch center and looking forward to new opportunities.

“My new job, you know what, it’s a lot less pay, but it’s going to be a lot less hassle,” she said.

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