Lindsey Fenner, Executive Board-at-Large and Editor, Penn Lake Library,
with Tami Cumber-Posten, formerly HSPHD
She has become a regular presence at union meetings, an indefatigable fighter and advocate. Tami doesn’t even need to be there. As an involuntarily terminated (fired) County employee, she is no longer even a union member. But Tami keeps showing up to stand up against the environment of discrimination, bullying, harassment, and retaliation at Hennepin County, actions that seem to target older, female workers of color.
Tami started with the County through the Pathways Program, a joint workforce-development effort between Hennepin County and Project for Pride in Living. She went through a nine-month employment development course, getting straight A’s and a glowing reference from her instructor at MCTC. She was finally hired on in a permanent position in HSPHD as an OSIII self-service representative, helping clients apply for MNSure at the six Self-Service Centers throughout the County.
Tami had spent her career working with the public and in non-profit settings, utilizing her natural people skills. She loved working with her clients. But she started to notice problems early on, starting with the inconsistent training the County provided. Tami had four peer mentors, but with no consistent approach to how and what they trained. She found it was challenging to learn the job when different people were telling her different things.
After only a month, Tami was getting scheduled to work alone, and was getting assigned to all six of Self-Service Centers, even as she saw coworkers being paired with other workers and getting scheduled at their preferred worksites. She wanted to do her job well, but got in trouble with her peer mentor for “asking too many questions.” Tami started to get coaching after coaching from her supervisor, who, during Tami’s first one-on-one meeting, warned her not to talk to the Union about problems. Tami got coachings around communicating with her peer mentor, for including an additional person on a non-confidential email, for not emailing her supervisor back immediately.
Despite these unhelpful coachings and the unsupportive environment, Tami still tried to do the best job she could for her clients. At her three-month probationary review, she was told that while she was meeting expectations and in-line with the department’s values and goals, she was still performing “at the lower level of competency.” When Tami asked for specifics, she was told by her supervisor that this job wasn’t “black and white.” No issues were brought to her attention regarding her work performance, work quality, or work quantity.
Tami kept on trying to do her best, despite being constantly scheduled to work by herself and finding herself isolated at the rotating job sites. She would volunteer to help out co-workers, she was never late and rarely absent, she had high accuracy ratings for paperwork filing, she got positive feedback in reviews from co-workers, and most tellingly, she received thanks and appreciation from her clients. But all of this wasn’t enough.
At her six-month probationary review, Tami was terminated by a supervisor who had only seen her work in action about two or three times for only a few minutes each time. But to add to the insult of being fired, Tami was also escorted out by security in front of all of her co-workers and clients. Looking back on this moment, Tami explained how she “couldn’t believe the unfairness. . . . The rules were different, clearly different for other people.”
Getting over such a public humiliation was hard. Tami suffered for a long time from the psychological and emotional impacts of her unfair firing. But she knew she had “to stand up to this . . . [You] have to make it better and keep going forward.” Tami and Local 2822 filed a probationary termination grievance, which failed, as expected. (Probationary terminations have very few legal restrictions for employers and few legal recourses for employees.) She hasn’t given up, though. Tami was recently able to file a discrimination lawsuit against Hennepin County and her former supervisor.
Tami wants to make it clear she is optimistic about the future. She is currently providing childcare for her granddaughters and is loving the time she can spend with them. She explained that it is “Good to be there as these girls grow, to influence them to be strong, independent, open-minded, know how to stick-up and fight for themselves. The best way to teach them that is from my actions.”
Tami isn’t sure if she would ever want to work for the County again, if given the opportunity. She said it would have under different circumstances, in a better environment. Instead, she is looking forward to starting her own childcare business and becoming her own boss. But she has advice for County employees facing the same kind of hostile work environment. She wants workers to understand that “When this kind of thing happens, too often people just accept it and go away. But I want to encourage people to look for resources, talk to people, fight and stand up for yourself—People have power—don’t be afraid.”
Contact the Union Defense Committee:
• Keep a detailed journal of times, dates, and incidences;
• Keep copies of all documents, save and print emails;
• Ask for a union representative to be present at meetings with supervisors if you have concerns;
• Respond in writing—stand up for yourself, if negative things are said, you have the right to defend yourself!
• Engage and participate in the Union;
• File a grievance;
• Contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC);
• Start a petition.