Christine Cieplinski was an attorney and employee of the state of Connecticut for 17 years, moving from the Office of Policy and Management to become Director of Labor Relations at UConn Health in 2014. But all that ended when she investigated and secured the resignation of a UConn Health employee ...
The Fitch Files: Fear and Loathing Among State Wage and Workplace Investigators
Imagine a workplace in which you feel it necessary to video-record yourself making a trip to the bathroom in case you are confronted by colleagues; where employees allegedly hire private investigators to follow each other around; where petty personal disputes become matters of extensive internal investigations.
If it sounds incredible, it’s not: It’s actually the Department of Labor’s Wage & Workplace Standards Division, a team of state investigators who are tasked with investigating shady business practices and, apparently, each other.
The division was recently praised by Gov. Dannel Malloy in a press release, noting the investigators in fiscal year 2018 managed to recover $4.9 million in back wages for employees cheated out of their pay by various companies.
Those collections largely came during Resa Spaziani’s tenure as Director of the Wage and Workplace Standards Division – and that was the low-water mark. The previous year, Spaziani oversaw $8.9 million in lost or withheld wages returned to employees — a record amount, according to a press release by the governor.
Spaziani is a 28-year employee at DOL and was one of three supervisors at the Division of Wage and Workplace Standards before being promoted to director in 2016.
But all was not well in the Division while Spaziani was at the helm.
Multiple internal investigations over the course of 2017 by DOL Human Resources Director Neil Griffin, reveal a division rife with conflict, largely stemming from a union steward election and an extensive union complaint against Spaziani based on an anonymous letter.
The strife within the division — and investigation aimed at Spaziani — caused her to step down from her role as director after little more than a year, even though the vast majority of the complaints against her were unsubstantiated.
Spaziani said in an email that the turmoil came about because she “attempted to initiate accountability,” and that she was “targeted by employees who resisted change.”
“As Director, I was fortunate that the majority of the wage unit staff supported the improvements being made and were receptive to these changes,” Spaziani said. “However, several employees resisted initiatives introduced to the unit and unfortunately, my professional and personal life was negatively affected by certain actions and claims made by these individuals.”
Those “certain actions” by employees included following her on the weekend to photograph her working at a second job, according to Spaziani. The photographs were mailed anonymously to former DOL Commissioner Scott Jackson in a misguided effort to get her fired.
Spaziani is a single mother and says she works two jobs to support her family.
One of the investigations alludes to the photographs: “Spaziani stated that in April the Commissioner had brought pictures of her taken at her weekend job that someone had mailed to him.”
Spaziani confirmed the existence of those photographs and says that despite the turmoil in the division and the apparent attempt to intimidate her with the photographs, Commissioner Jackson had “minimal involvement and made no attempts to remedy” the situation.
An official union complaint was filed against Spaziani by AFSCME Local 269 President Xavier Gordon on September 18, 2017. It listed 16 different accusations based, apparently, on an anonymous letter from within the office.
The union complaint prompted an extensive human resources investigation into Spaziani, which largely consisted of accusations of favoritism based around workplace lunches and a private party Spaziani held at her home.
The union complaint alleged that there existed two classes of employees: the “privileged” who were favored by Spaziani and the “unprivileged.”
“Just because the Director brings in money is not a reason for retaining that Director,” the union complaint concluded. “As union members who abide by both the union contract, and the CT Department of Labor mission statement, this unit is under dire distress with this Director in power.”
All but two of the sixteen allegations in the union complaint were found to be unsubstantiated.
A major point of contention revolved around a union steward election between Matthew Ferri and Amy Jachimowski.
According to the investigations, Jachimowski was repeatedly warned by Spaziani to cease politicking during work hours, eventually culminating in an office confrontation in which Spaziani “screamed” at Jachimowski to stop soliciting votes on office time.
Ferri won the union steward election and was subsequently named as one of Spaziani’s “priviledged employees” in the union complaint.
Human resources’ investigation did substantiate that Spaziani yelled at Jachimowski after three warnings to stop soliciting union votes and found Spaziani said she would put an employee in a headlock – a statement Spaziani said was made in jest.
While the source of the union complaint remains anonymous, a separate, lengthy letter was sent on February 6, 2018 from Spaziani’s administrative assistant, Holly Carter, to human resources and reports some of the same accusations contained in the original union complaint — including Spaziani saying she would put an employee in a headlock and reprimanding Jachimowski.
Carter’s letter was sent in an email to Commissioner Jackson after Spaziani had announced her resignation and returned to her former position as a supervisor. Carter wrote that she lived in fear of Spaziani.
“She’s always plotting in her office with her network of people,” Carter wrote. “It’s a horrible feeling knowing that she is out to get me.”
Carter offers a litany of complaints about inter-office issues, states that she is overwhelmed in the office and that numerous mistakes are being made by staff. One of those mistakes included leaving checks meant for workers who were bilked by their employers in a safe for over two months because a file had been lost.
Carter also notes in the letter that she has known Spaziani for 20 years and they used to be friends and lived together for a short period of time.
The letter was marked “Please Keep This Confidential in Fear of More Retaliation.”
But Spaziani filed a complaint of her own against the employee she suspected of having her followed. Spaziani felt this wage enforcement agent “posed a direct threat as her actions have indicated a high probability to cause substantial harm.” Spaziani said the agent had become “fixated or obsessed with her,” according to the investigation.
Spaziani’s claim was partially backed up by two other employees who had filed complaints against the same person for making derogatory comments about the office, coworkers and a birthday announcement for a fellow wage investigator.
Like all the other investigations, it all turned up nothing — another case of inter-office social strife, he said she said accusations, and rumor. Nothing could be proved.
Spaziani was not the only target for complaints, however, and human resources was forced to investigate multiple accusations by employees against each other.
The investigations ranged from whether one employee was recording coworkers on camera to whether one employee called another a “worthless ass.”
In one instance an employee recorded herself with her cell phone as she walked from her desk to the bathroom “to protect herself and to record her own activity,” according to the human resources investigation.
The employee felt this was necessary to do when she was alone in the building because “groups of people, certain people, would make up stories about her.”
While the employee admitted to recording herself for protection, the allegation that she was improperly videotaping other employees was not substantiated.
The “worthless ass” accusation also went unsubstantiated.
However, the complaint against Spaziani filed by union local president Gordon has prompted a recent call for his removal as union president by Matthew Ferri, who won the union steward election.
Ferri officially called for Gordon’s resignation in a complaint to AFSCME Executive Director Jody Barr, alleging Gordon colluded with former Commissioner Jackson and Human Resources Director Neil Griffin to target certain employees for investigation.
Because the anonymous complaint letter named union members as part of a “privileged group,” Gordon’s filing of the complaint prompted human resources to investigate those members.
“AFSCME Local 269 Union President, Xavier Gordon, exercised poor judgement and gross negligence of duties as Union President in that he received an anonymous complaint in late August 2017 and subsequently met, in private and alone with the Labor Commissioner to discuss the allegations contained in this anonymous complaint,” the letter to AFSCME Executive Director Jody Barr says.
“These investigations continue to have detrimental effects upon this division,” Ferri wrote.
An AFSCME judicial trial is scheduled for November 7, 2018 to determine whether or not Gordon colluded with management.
Spaziani stepped down from the role as director in January of 2018 after the spate of complaints, although she continues working for DOL as a wage and workplace supervisor.
In her resignation letter, Spaziani cited a “toxic work environment” in which she became a “target of retaliation.”
“I doubt, in the history of the Department of Labor, that any male Director has been questioned regarding who he ate lunch [with], who he socialized with after hours, or if he yelled at someone after they were repeatedly advised to stop an activity which was against every written policy,” Spaziani wrote in her October 11, 2017 resignation letter. “I feel that investigation in itself was handled inappropriately and thus created more issues within the Division.”
Spaziani also cited her accomplishments during her one-year tenure as director of the Wage and Workplace Division, noting collections had increased 23 percent.
Asked why she would remain at the Wage & Workplace Division after such difficult years, Spaziani said she, naturally, has to support her household but also felt she could continue to be an asset to the state.
“Ultimately, I felt I could best serve the public by returning to my front-line supervisor position,” Spaziani said.
Connecticut’s Wage and Workplace Standards enforcement agents typically receive between $55,000 and $85,000 per year in salary, according to the state’s transparency website. Spaziani earned $97,410 in 2017 as director of the division.
Hamden Police Chief Thomas Wydra was hired in September to take over as director of the division. Wydra’s hiring raised some eyebrows as former commissioner Scott Jackson was previously mayor of Hamden, but DOL says Wydra was selected out of five applicants in a competitive process.
“The position was posted on the Department of Administrative Services website and qualified candidates were interviewed by Commissioner Westby and Acting Deputy Commissioner Dudzinski, who also made the recommendation for hire,” DOL spokeswoman Nancy Steffens said in an email.
Wydra took over as director of the Wage and Workplace Standards Division on October 5, 2018.
He will likely have his hands full.
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