Know Your Rights: Public Employees and Protected Speech

Jim Heaney & Jim Safranek 08-21-17

Santa Cruz County Chief Steward Jim Heaney (left) with Steward Jim Safranek.

SEIU Steward Jim Safranek recently took his managers to arbitration. In 2015, a Santa Cruz County manager filed a harassment complaint against Jim alleging that he retaliated against her by saying negative things to other employees about her conduct as a manager. The County hired an unlicensed investigator, who concluded that Jim’s remarks about the manager were retaliatory. SEIU challenged that finding because we believe it was unfounded.

Under California law, public employees have a right to criticize management representatives. There is no question that a public employee’s complaints directed at supervisory personnel are protected when they relate to employment matters. (Barstow Unified School District (1996) PERB Decision No. 1164) This is true even if the public employee is acting as an individual rather than a union activist, so long as the public employee is raising issues that affect other employees as well.

At the arbitration hearing in August, the manager testified that she doesn’t like it when employees don’t say nice things about her. The County’s lawyer spent a great deal of time discussing how the manager was offended, rather than trying to prove any retaliatory intent by Jim. At one point, the arbitrator admonished the County that how the manager feels is not relevant.

SEIU contends that the manager filed her complaint against Jim to silence him and suppress the rights of SEIU-represented employees to engage in protected speech in the workplace. We are still waiting for a final decision from the arbitrator.

“This case is important to us because we cannot allow managers to use the discrimination complaint process as a way to prevent employees from speaking out about workplace problems.” – Jim Heaney, Chief Steward, Santa Cruz County Chapter

Update as of 12/11/17
The arbitrator issued the following award: “The County did not correctly find that Mr. James Safranek had violated the County’s EEO Policy by retaliating against [the manager] because she had filed a discrimination complaint against him. A copy of this Decision and Award will be appended to the Investigation Findings and to Ms. Susan A. Mauriello’s letter to Mr. Safranek dated April 4, 2016 wherever those documents are found in the County’s records and files. Any other documents referring to the retaliation will be expunged or redacted to remove such references. Likewise, the finding of retaliation may not be used as a basis for disciplinary or discharge action against Mr. Safranek.”

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