District tells employees how to answer questions, not to turn over paperwork directly to investigators
By RON AIKEN
Top officials at Richland School District One are actively working against the ongoing Department of Labor investigation into multiple alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act by discouraging employees who were improperly classified and owed back overtime pay from cooperating with federal investigators, including coaching them on what to say and requiring them to turn over any requested documents to the district’s legal office first, Quorum has confirmed through multiple sources.
In fact, sources say that internally Richland One officials refuse to acknowledge that the district is under investigation at all.
“We were told that this is just a routine audit that happens all the time,” said one of 46 employees former human resource officer Machelle Thompson identified as having been improperly classified based on a review of their work duties and hours.
“They will not say ‘investigation’ or ‘investigators,’ just ‘audit’ and ‘auditors.’ They said they’re frequently audited and there’s nothing unusual about it.”
Reached Thursday afternoon at his office in Atlanta, Department of Labor spokesperson Michael D’Aquino said the action “is an investigation,” not an audit.
The employee said approximately 12-15 other affected employees were summoned to a meeting within the past two weeks at which officials made the district’s position on employee participation in the investigation crystal clear.
“We got an email saying there would be a meeting the next morning about forthcoming issues regarding wage and labor, but not what it would cover,” the source said. “(District officials) are very, very careful about not putting anything incriminating in emails.
“We showed up and all the top administrators were in the room, including the superintendent and his executive team. There were about as many administrators as employees. It made people very nervous.
“When they spoke we were told not to voluntarily provide any documents at all (that would show they worked more than 40 hours a week) to the ‘auditors.’
“They said if a question came up where (investigators) needed it, to provide the documents to Susan Williams first and she would turn them over. It made employees feel intimidated because they’re screening documents to see what you’d claim, and there was no guarantee the documents would get to the investigators.”
The source said the employees even were told what to say to investigators if approached.
“They told us to only answer ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions,” the source said. “We were told specifically not to volunteer any information whatsoever unless specifically asked.
“We were being coached on what to say. You watch enough ‘Law & Order’ to see how defense attorneys coach their clients to answer. But we’re not on defense, the district is. We’re the victims. This investigation is supposed to help us recover money we weren’t paid, not help the district stonewall the Department of Labor’s efforts to make that happen. We haven’t even been told who the investigators are or how to contact them.”
According to Thompson, whose appeal of Witherspoon’s recent decision to uphold her termination and deny her grievance will be heard by the board, the district is counting on employee fear and deliberate misinformation to thwart an investigation she said could cost taxpayers “enormous amounts of money” once investigators comb through two and possibly three years of payroll information.
“I identified 46 employees, but there are potentially many, many more,” Thompson said. “Identifying employees who have been miscategorized is (the Department of Labor’s) specialty, it’s what they do. They’ll go through all of payroll’s records.
“So if you start counting up large amounts of overtime each week for all the employees over a period of years, you’re talking about enormous amounts of money that taxpayers will have to foot the bill for. Whatever it turns out to be, that’s money that was supposed to be going to education, not to pay for the district improperly categorizing and underpaying employees for years.”
For the true scope of the problem to be accurately measured, Thompson said, employees themselves will need to calculate the approximate additional hours they worked using as much documentation as possible — emails or texts on weekends, work calls after hours, etc. For some, that process already has begun.
“I have worked probably 45 to 55 hours a week for years,” said the source still at the district. “For most of the people who are in this situation, that’s the norm. I’m in the process of researching mine right now.”
Thompson said her worst fear is that the tactics used by district officials will succeed in preventing deserving employees from coming forward and silence those who deserve to be heard.
“People are terrified that if they speak up they’ll lose their jobs or be transferred,” Thompson said. “They see how the district is coming down on allowing them access to investigators and know they’ll be targeted if they do what they’ve been told not to do.”
The source agreed.
“The people I know who want to talk to investigators are afraid to do it at work or during business hours, anywhere they can be seen,” they said. “They do not want to do it on site or have their names involved because they know they’ll be blackballed, assigned to a low-paying position or get negative evaluations leading to termination.
“That’s how this district operates, and everyone knows it. People have hope with the investigations here, but also don’t trust that they’ll be protected if they speak out.”
In addition to confirming the investigation, D’Aquino said any employees who wish to report their situations without going through the district may call 803-765-5981.
When reached late Thursday afternoon, District One spokeswoman Karen York issued the following statement.
“Discussions were held about what to expect with the audit. It was strongly emphasized that, if contacted, that everyone should tell the truth. General Counsel for the district is the liaison with the Department of Labor to submit documentation. The other assertions are denied.”
Reach Aiken at (803) 200-8809. Email him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @QuorumColumbia.