July 12, 2018

Made whole with union power

Jason Klingeman—and his union—didn’t give up fighting for his job so he could provide for his son.

Jason Klingeman is a father and member of AFSCME Local 424. He works a tough job as a security therapy aide at Chester Mental Health Center (CHMC) since 2011.

Residents at Chester are largely people found not guilty of crimes by reason of insanity or mentally unfit to stand criminal trial. As the only maximum-security psychiatric hospital in the state, its patients can be extremely challenging and volatile.

In April 2016, a patient entered a restricted area where Klingeman was on duty and refused to leave, becoming violent.

“He came at me with a closed fist and we both fell to the floor,” Klingeman recalled. The patient was put into restraints by staff, and the day resumed for Klingeman and the other staff.

But the next day Klingeman was told he was to report to the control center, a glass enclosure where workers have no contact with residents, pending investigation of the previous day’s incident.

Wrongly accused

Violence at CHMC is not uncommon and AFSCME members who work there are often wrongly accused of abusing residents. AFSCME grieves such wrongful discipline, and has prevailed in all 17 such cases in the last year.

For employees, the process can be extremely trying. Even if the employer’s investigation is ongoing, workers are typically terminated after 30 to 60 days of suspension. They can expect to be unemployed for weeks or even months.

Klingeman’s case dragged out for two years. After being told he would be assigned to the control center for 60 days before being terminated, Klingeman kept his job for more than a year before he officially lost his position. It was almost another year before he got it back.

Four months after the incident, Klingeman faced criminal charges and was interviewed by the state police.

“The police report said I shouldn’t be charged and that the case was absurd,” Klingeman said.

Four months after Klingeman was cleared of any criminal charges, the Office of the Inspector General sent Klingeman a certified letter informing him he was terminated.

He knew that co-workers who had been terminated unjustly were denied unemployment benefits so he immediately sought other work.

“I have a little boy, so I didn’t want to take any chances,” he said. And it’s a good thing he didn’t. Klingeman was unemployed for almost a year as the state’s investigation plodded along.

Union strong

DHS does not replace suspended or terminated staff with pending investigations but instead covers their positions with mandatory and volunteer overtime.

One reason staff aren’t replaced may be the fact that most get their jobs back. Klingeman was no exception. AFSCME took his grievance to arbitration and just two weeks after the arbitration hearing on March 20, the arbitrator issued a ruling in his favor.

“The arbitrator said my case was one of the most outrageous cases she’s ever heard,” Klingeman remembered. “She ordered the state to put me back to work immediately and make me 100 percent whole.”

For Klingeman, the good news was a huge relief. To make him whole, Klingeman was given back pay for the many months after his termination, plus all holidays, vacation and sick leave he would have accrued during that time.

“It’s awesome to be back at Chester,” Klingeman effused. “If it wasn’t for our union, I wouldn’t be here.” He had high praise for his local union president, Randy Clover, and Council 31 Staff Representative Ty Petersen, who worked tirelessly to get him back, along with the other local officers. Klingeman also cited Council 31 attorney Sue Osthus who handled his case. “Sue was magnificent. She did not back down.”

Working at Chester is a tough job because there’s so little support from management, said Klingeman. But he stays on because he knows he’s making a difference.

“I love when I can help a patient,” he said. “When I hear they are out there getting a job, on the proper medication and doing well for themselves, that feels really good.”

And Klingeman finds strength in his union.

“I enjoy my union brothers and sisters. We have a good camaraderie. We have an awesome union. I am 1,000 percent pleased.” 

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