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OWI Procedure Splits Supervisors

By Staff | Aug 28, 2008

Questions over a personnel procedure in the Secondary Road Department comprised a majority of the discussion of the Palo Alto County Supervisors at their weekly meeting Tuesday, Aug. 26. The supervisors are divided on the issue of how employees who are convicted of Operating motor vehicles While Intoxicated are handled.

Palo Alto County Engineer Joel Fantz opened the discussion, which was attended by the full board and Palo Alto County Attorney Peter C. Hart.

“To start with, this is not a written policy,” Fantz told the board. “This is the procedure that we have developed and I feel it is the most lenient in the area.”

The procedure gives an employee two choices upon a conviction for Operating While Intoxicated. The first option is termination from employment with the county. The second option is that the employee is able to keep their job, along with full insurance benefits, vacation, sick leave and other leave time during the time their drivers’ license is under suspension. However, their hourly rate of pay is reduced from their regular pay grade to a lower level for the time of suspension of driving privileges, until they are able to regain their license to drive. Since secondary road employee job descriptions include a requirement for the employee to obtain a Commercial Drivers’ License, (CDL), any OWI suspension results in the suspension of a CDL for a period of one year under federal guidelines.

“In my seven years here, there have been five instances where employees have received OWI suspensions,” Fantz said. “All of them have chosen the second option, with one leaving employment because of a second OWI conviction.”

Fantz went on to explain he had visited with the surrounding county engineers, and found that most have not had to deal with such situations and that most would consider an OWI arrest and conviction grounds for dismissal of the employee.

“I’m a great believer in grace and second chances,” Fantz said. “I feel that the reduction in pay for the loss of the CDL is harsh and a hard thing to go through, but if a person’s life depends on being able to drive, an OWI is serious business.”

“I talked with some other county supervisors (from other counties) and they all questioned reducing pay like we are,” Supervisor Ed Noonan said. “The problem I have is deducting people’s wages. What they’re going through is tough enough for them and their families. It’s hard to live on half their wages.”

“I’d agree with that,” noted Supervisor Keith Wirtz. “I talked to people in Pocahontas and Dickinson Counties, and they both said they’d treat each case like this on an individual basis.”

“I question if these people really can’t do their jobs,” Noonan continued. “Do they really need the CDL to operate a grader or run a mower?”

“How is it we can become the judge and jury on this?” Hofstad asked

“I don’t see how we can do this,” Noonan said.

“It isn’t that we don’t need to have some kind of policy, but it’s taking away half their pay,” Wirtz said.

“This is your procedure,” Fantz reminded the board. “We’ve reviewed this in the past. I want you to know that it would be against my strongest recommendations to change this. We are the most lenient around the area.”

“I disagree,” Noonan said. “Six other supervisors I talked to said they’d evaluate these issues on an individual basis.”

Fantz pointed out that job descriptions require a CDL for Secondary Roads employees. “It’s an uphill battle to find quality employees, but at the same time, there have to be serious consequences for serious actions.”

“This isn’t a punishment policy,” Fantz continued “This is about whether the taxpayers should pay full pay to someone who cannot do all the duties of the job they’re hired to do.”

“If you’ve got good people, you have to take care of them,” Wirtz noted. “Yes, they’ve made a mistake, but it’s hard to get good equipment operators. I think this should be done on an individual basis.”

“Under the Iowa Code, section 91A.5, dealing with wage payment collection, an employer may deduct wages if the employee involved is in agreement,” County Attorney Peter Hart interjected. “Each of these employees has chosen that option so they are agreeing to the deductions; so yes, it is legal to do.”

“I’d like to see us put these people on probation for a year after a first offense,” Noonan offered, “And terminate their employment for a second offense. I don’t think we ought to cut their wages. It’s awful tough on a family to do that. I think we could come up with a different plan.”

“I don’t agree,” Board Chair Leo Goeders said. “I think the taxpayers would be very opposed to paying someone a full salary when they have to be driven around to work, and can’t do their full job.”

“I feel the same way,” noted Supervisor Ron Graettinger. “We have to have two people now to do that one job and now with winter coming up, we’ll be short people to run plows. You can’t put everybody in the shop all winter long.”

“I’d lean towards keeping good people, and trying to keep the people if we can,” Hofstad noted.

With several unanswered questions regarding work permits, and what an employee would and would not be able to operate without driving privileges, the board ended the discussion without taking any action.