Dec 12


City worker in paid leave limbo

A water department dispatcher said he was denied breaks for years and witnessed racial discrimination in the workplace. He’s been on paid leave for a year and a half, at a cost of more than $90,000, while the city figures out what to do.

Two years ago, a dispatcher in the city’s water department complained to his supervisors about work conditions at the pumping station on Porter Avenue.

His computer didn’t work properly, often compelling him to do the same data-entry work twice, Rashimee Wilson wrote in an email to his bosses, including then Public Works Commissioner Mike Finn. 

Worse, he wrote, he wasn’t allowed to leave his post for meal breaks, not even when he was asked to work two eight-hour shifts in a row. 

Further, Wilson claimed, the department’s seniority system granted privileges and accommodations to white employees that were denied to Wilson and other Black employees. 

Six months later, in June 2022, after a series of meetings failed to reach a resolution, the city put Wilson on paid leave, pending an investigation into his grievances.

The investigation was completed more than a year ago, but Wilson remains on paid leave. The city has paid him more than $90,000 to sit at home, according to city financial records, while his bosses and union representatives figure out what to do with him. 

Wilson told Investigative Post — and his superiors — that he wants to return to work.

“If the only reason I am on this leave was for the investigation of my claims, [and] if the investigation has concluded months ago, then why am I still being forced to stay on this leave?” Wilson wrote in an email to his union in October 2022, just four months after he’d been sent home. 

“And shouldn’t I have some type of update? Report findings? Expected return date? Something?”

Representatives of Wilson’s union, AFSCME Local 264, declined to comment on the matter, saying the dispute is ongoing. 

A spokesman for Mayor Byron Brown did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did the mayor’s human resources or public works commissioners. 

Spotlight on paid leave

In September, Investigative Post published a story about a fire department clerk who was on paid suspension for more than seven years, at a cost to taxpayers of nearly $600,000. 

The clerk, Jill Repman, was called back to work as a result of our reporting, but instead burned through three months of accumulated paid days off, then retired on November 30.

All three branches of city government reacted to the Repman story: 

  • The Common Council asked the city comptroller to conduct an audit of employees on paid leave and look into the circumstances surrounding the Repman case.
  • Comptroller Barbara Miller-Williams instead launched an “investigation” — a less thorough inquiry than an audit.
  • The mayor instructed his finance department to issue reports to department heads each pay period detailing the number of employees on leave.

The mayor’s paid leave reports have been short on detail. And the comptroller has yet to release the results of her investigation, which was meant to be completed a month ago. 

Miller-Williams told city lawmakers and Investigative Post that her analysis would be submitted in time for this week’s Council meeting. It was not.

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In response, Fillmore District Council Member Mitch Nowakowski, who chairs the Council’s Civil Service Committee, submitted a resolution this week asking New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli to intervene.

“Because the Buffalo Common Council has repetitively attempted in good faith to work with the City Comptroller and has consistently been met with opposition and missed deadlines on this matter, I respectfully request your intervention,” Nowakowski wrote to the state comptroller. 

“I urge you to conduct an independent risk assessment audit to safeguard the interests of our taxpayers, restore faith in our administrative machinery, and ensure no similar cases are occurring.”

Investigative Post’s own analysis of city payrolls over two-and-a-half months show that the number of city workers on paid administrative leave, like Wilson, has dropped since September. The number of employees on paid suspension, like Repman, has remained the same:

  • There were 22 city employees on paid administrative leave in late September, costing taxpayers $42,073 in salary over one two-week pay period. 
  • By the first pay period in November, that number had been reduced to nine, paid $16,563.
  • There were eight city employees suspended with pay in late September, at a cost of $20,531 over a two-week pay period. 
  • By the first pay period in November, there were still eight employees suspended with pay, at a cost of $19,460.

Between September and mid-November, the city paid $132,872 to workers on paid administrative leave. The city paid $97,557 to workers suspended with pay.

“I’m one of them”

After we published the Repman story, readers began sending Investigative Post tips about city workers paid to stay at home for extended periods of time. The first name we received was Wilson’s.  At the time, he’d been off the job for more than a year.

“Another bizarre story of abuse due to the city’s incompetence on discipline,” wrote an anonymous tipster, the week after the Repman story broke. 

A couple days later, Wilson himself contacted Investigative Post — first via email, then by phone. He said he’d been told we were looking into city employees on long-term paid leave.

“I’m one of them,” he said.

Rashimee Wilson, a dispatcher for the city’s water department.

Buffalo’s water system is run by the Buffalo Water Board, a public benefit corporation whose board is appointed by the mayor. The board pays a private company, Veolia, $7.8 million a year to manage the system, which takes in 175 million gallons per day through the Colonel Ward Pumping Station at the foot of Porter Avenue. 

The Buffalo Water Board has more than 100 unionized workers who are public employees. Dispatchers send out maintenance crews to fix broken water mains and other problems in the system. They are considered emergency personnel.

Wilson started his job with the water department in August 2015. He was trained by two veteran dispatchers who “happened to be white,” he said. 

When they took lunch breaks, he did too. But when training was over, and he was scheduled to work independently, he was told he couldn’t leave the facility. He had to take his lunch at his station, where he could take and make calls for service.

When he asked why others could leave the property for lunch, but he could not, he was told to “look in the contract” and “talk to your union.”

“That doesn’t seem fair,” he recalled thinking. “Some people get a break, other people don’t get a break.”

In this case, he noted, “some people” were white and “other people” were Black.

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In fact, the privileges and accommodations were determined by seniority, enshrined in most public service union contracts. Workers with more years on the job got first dibs at plum shifts, overtime opportunities, and promotions. 

Wilson said one result of the seniority system was that his white co-workers, who had more years on the job, had the option to take Juneteenth as a paid holiday. If he wanted to take that day off, he’d have to spend a sick day, a personal day or a vacation day — or take the day off without pay.

“Now every Black dispatcher in the building, if they wanted to be off Juneteenth, we would have to pay the city eight hours of our own personal vacation or sick time,” Wilson said.

“But the only thing they can tell you is that it’s been this way for years and it’s in your contract. Talk to your union.”

Wilson had some run-ins with a day-shift supervisor, who he claimed was passing him over for overtime, among other slights. So he jumped at the chance to work evenings, though that meant he was the only dispatcher on duty, with no possibility of leaving his station for a break.

Still, he didn’t complain too much. “The job’s pretty easy,” he said, and he didn’t want to make waves.

The breaking point

The last straw was a work computer that frequently failed to save data he’d entered during previous shifts. That meant he’d have to do the work over.

He asked his bosses for a new computer. They told him they needed approval from Veolia. That approval never came, he said.

He asked if he might take breaks outside the facility, like day-shift workers did — perhaps go for a walk to calm his frustrations with the computer.

“Long story short, they told me [they weren’t] fixing the computer. And if I took a break, it would be job abandonment, and that they could discipline me,” Wilson said.

Wilson said he didn’t know the protocol for submitting a complaint about working conditions. He claimed he didn’t know he was in a union, let alone how to contact its officers. So, in December 2021, he emailed his immediate supervisors and their boss, the commissioner of public works, laying out his grievances. 

He also added an ultimatum: If the computer wasn’t fixed or replaced before his next shift, he wrote, he was going to Burger King.

When he arrived for his next shift, the computer hadn’t been fixed or replaced. So he went to Burger King near the Peace Bridge. 

“I ate my burger in front of the camera, hoping that they would write me up and do whatever they could do, because at that point, I thought, maybe I’ll get some type of hearing or something.”

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Finn, the public works commissioner, summoned Wilson to a meeting, where he was introduced to his union representatives. At that first meeting, which Wilson recorded, he was told that in the future he should direct his complaints to his union, rather than the commissioner.

(“I’m like, ‘I’ve never seen these guys in my life,’” Wilson told Investigative Post. “I thought they were janitors. My bad.”)

That and subsequent meetings failed to produce a solution to Wilson’s problems. In February 2022, Wilson reiterated his allegations in an email to the state labor department.

Finally, Finn ordered an investigation and put Wilson on paid leave. That was June 2022. The inquiry was completed six weeks later and largely dismissed Wilson’s claims, in particular finding “no violation of the City’s policy on unlawful discrimination or harassment.” 

Wilson disputes the investigation’s findings, arguing that it affirmed all his allegations, but excused the city from culpability because the investigator determined racial discrimination was not the cause.

“They said, ‘Hey … he’s saying that no Black dispatcher gets a lunch break because they’re Black. And that’s not true.’ 

“I never said it’s because I’m Black. But it’s true no Black dispatcher gets a lunch break. They found themselves innocent of everything that they say I said, but found that everything that I said was actually true.” 

The investigator recommended the Department of Public Works meet with Wilson and his union to “coordinate Mr. Wilson’s return to work.” His union negotiated back pay for about a month’s worth of the breaks he’d been denied, but Wilson rejected the settlement. He figured he was owed for five years of missed breaks.

Meanwhile, he hasn’t been called back to the job. Nor has he been fired or disciplined. He’s caught in a kind of limbo. But he said he wants to return to work — with some conditions.

“Give me a lunch break,” he said. “Give me the same fair holidays and everything that the white employees have. Give that to the Black employees.” 

Investigative Post

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