City, Fire Dept. at Odds Over Uniform Reimbursement
Left, SPFD Chief Tracey Kujawa talks about her frustration over a uniform reimbursement disputed by the city. (City-Times photo)
By Brandi Makuski
It all started over a pair of work shoes.
The Stevens Point Personnel Committee this week wrestled with a request to approve reimbursing uniform costs for an employee of the Stevens Point Fire Department.
The employee, administrative assistant Lorna Whalen, is having trouble getting reimbursed $239.44 for purchasing two pair of pants, a belt, shoes and socks that she’s required to wear for her job at the SPFD. Whalen has for the past 19 years been reimbursed for uniform items even though it wasn’t addressed under city guidelines. In 2010, the city began to push back on the reimbursements because Whalen was not an official firefighter but didn’t officially address the policy until 2013 city budget talks.
Under the new policy, administrative assistants like Whalen would only be reimbursed for one uniform shirt and badge per year. Fire Chief Tracey Kujawa wants that policy changed.
“They’re micromanaging the fire department’s budget,” Kujawa said. “As a fire chief, I have the right to budget the money necessary to uniform my people in this department. It’s my opinion, and the opinion of this department, that the administrative assistance should be uniformed. The environment and athmosphere, the way we work as a team, requires her to be in uniform.”
Police Chief Kevin Ruder said he does not require police department administrative assistants to wear uniforms, saying they work behind safety glass and are obvious employees of the department. Kujawa said Whalen is frequently the only employee in the building and needs to have some kind of apparent authority for visitors. Other city employees who don’t wear a uniform can’t understand its significance, Kujawa said.
“They don’t understand what being uniformed brings to a person; pride, recognition, authority, camaraderie. They don’t understand having 41 uniformed people and then you have one that is not, how that personally effects that person and how they feel as though they’re not part of that team anymore,” she said. “My budget is $4.8 million, and we’re sitting here scoffing at $300 dollars?”
As part of union agreements and city regulations, costs for specific pieces of the fire department’s uniform are paid to individual employees by way of annual allowance added to a paycheck or separately through reimbursement, similar to the police department and other city workers. The funds for all uniform costs- including Whaley’s- are already included in the fire department’s budget and would not incur any additional cost to city coffers, Kujawa said, so questioning the reimbursement doesn’t make sense.
Stevens Point HR manager Lisa Jakusz says the new guidelines were adopted last November, shortly before Whalen made her annual uniform purchases. Jakusz said the city has already been lenient with the reimbursements and had already asked the department to stop prior to the new policy.
“This is an issue we’ve been trying to address for a good number of years,” Jakusz said, adding over the years office employees from various departments had their uniform requirements- and reimbursements- eliminated. “I agree the department heads should have some discretion, and we recognize that by providing shirts and a badge, she (Whalen) would be recognizable.”
Comptroller/Treasurer Corey Ladick said the staff in his office has questioned the need to reimburse for items like slacks, belts and socks for some time.
“The previous comptroller also questioned this going back a very long time,” Ladick said. “And I actually do have documentation going back to 2010 where we have an invoice that was paid, and what is says on this invoice is; ‘per meeting after staff- pay per (former comptroller/treasurer) John Schlice, but this is the last time.‘ Certainly my understanding of that is, it was made clear, especially after a staff meeting that, ‘ok, we’re going to be nice and we’re going to let it go this time, but this is the last time because it’s not covered under the administrative policy’. The frustration is that it’s continued to happen.”
Ladick said he felt the offer to reimburse costs for only a uniform shirt and badge was a “solid compromise” considering no other municipality in the area pays for full uniform costs of administrative assistants.
“So we’re already more generous that our comparable municipalities,” Ladick said. “A lot of this also comes down to a larger issue: I have one of the best staffs anyone would ask for. It would be so much easier for us to turn a blind eye to people who turn in reimbursements for socks or for athletic shoes. But I don’t have that kind of a staff that’s going to just turn a blind eye. It would be so much easier to just be friends with everybody and turn a blind eye; but you know what? It wouldn’t be the right thing to do. Some people will say you shouldn’t split hairs over small amounts of money, but I’ll tell you this: when we get into the office in the morning, we’re all 100% on the same page, and that is we will split hairs and we will fight for the taxpayers of this city.”
The Personnel Committee turned down the request from Kujawa to amend the new policy to include reimbursing Whalen’s full uniform, but did not consider whether to pay the most recent invoice. That issue would be decided at May’s committee meeting.
Alderman Tony Patton was the only committee member to voice support for changing the policy.
“Let’s say the fire department clears out and she’s the only one there- that’s why it’s important for her to have a badge or something,” said Patton, who also served on the Police & Fire Commission. “So if somebody comes into the fire station she’s recognized as a fire person. That’s one of the reasons I was tending to allow this (change).”
Patton also argued the policy was new and Whalen’s reimbursement would likely have been approved if she’d filed her request a few weeks earlier.
Kujawa said even though the reimbursement hasn’t been decided, the committee’s refusal to change the policy has been a partial morale- buster to Whalen and the department.
“I think it’s important the department head determines who’s uniformed and who isn’t. This department really does need her in uniform,” Kujawa said.
“There’s many times she’s here by herself if we’re out on a call when there’s 30 grade school kids here,” she added. “Kids gets worried, let me tell you: there’s alarms going off, people leaving quickly without saying goodbye, grabbing gear, getting on trucks, the noise, the lights: her uniform brings some calmness to that. You don’t know how at ease those children feel when she just takes over a classroom- how do you explain how that uniform brings that calmness? How can you explain the importance of that?”