The day Tracy Schutt was fired from Hennepin County’s child support office over allegations she falsified her time card, she sat in her car and wept for 45 minutes, she said.
“I was fired from a job that I was so passionate about and I loved it and it was my career for 18 years,” Schutt said.
Schutt is back on the job after a state administrative law judge ordered the county to return her to work with back pay. The judge, Barbara Case, criticized the county for relying on an inaccurate computer record of productivity in its decision to fire Schutt last September.
Schutt was one of 19 child support officers who lost their jobs after Hennepin County supervisors confronted them with productivity measurements last summer. Eighteen resigned. Five other child support workers were given suspensions.
But Schutt appealed her firing to the Office of Administrative Hearings. Since Schutt’s reinstatement, 10 workers who lost their jobs have contacted Schutt’s lawyer, Sarah Jewell, to find out if she can help them.
Hennepin County spokeswoman Carolyn Marinan said in an e-mail that the county is not appealing the decision on Schutt, but the “discharges and suspensions are final.”
The county declined to make anyone available for an interview but said in a statement, “We pride ourselves on conducting thorough and fair investigations related to allegations of employee misconduct.
“Our decision in this case was based on evidence we had collected. The Administrative Law Judge disagreed with our decision in this one case. ”
Among the duties of child support officers is establishing the paternity of children whose families are receiving public assistance and ensuring that the money a court has ordered to be paid is collected.
Case wrote in a May 10 memorandum that the firings were based on logs of day-to-day work entered by child support officers, called Case Activity Detail (CAAD). The county flagged the 24 employees who had fewer than five CAAD hours on days when they recorded eight or more hours on their time cards.
Case ruled that the county failed to show that CAAD hours are an accurate indicator of time worked and that “the county does not have a policy, formal or otherwise, regarding the number of CAAD entries expected per day or the frequency of these entries.” She said employees record their activities in different ways that account for the variations.
Case wrote that Schutt’s lack of notes “does not establish a lack of effort, lack of production, or deceitful behavior.”
Supervisors praised her productivity in 2015, 2016 and 2017. One gave her “an overall rating of Valued performer” with a “positive attitude and willingness to help at all times.”
Schutt said that when she faced termination, “I had a choice of going to the union for a formal grievance or to appeal to the Office of Administrative Hearings.” She chose the hearing route “because our union was encouraging us to resign,” she said.
Representatives of AFSCME Council 5, which provides services for her union local, did not respond to phone calls or an e-mail request for comment.
“I think this is a sad story,” said University of Toledo law professor Joseph Slater, an authority on public sector employment law who read the law judge decision. “It looks to me that these people lost their jobs unjustly.”
Workers who resign face hurdles getting their jobs back. They may have signed a document waiving their right to contest the allegations. They may have lost their right to an administrative hearing by going through the grievance procedure. Under state law, a worker must seek a hearing within 15 days of discipline.
Slater said there’s another option for workers. “If enough public pressure is brought that this was a travesty of justice, they might have a chance,” Slater said, but added, “Employers are often stubborn and don’t want to admit they made a mistake.”
In the meantime, some employees who lost their jobs remain upset. Jewell, Schutt’s attorney, said the impact on workers was “devastating.” One told of filing for bankruptcy. Another said they had sold their house and moved.