Arizona Department of Economic Security Director Tim Jeffries doubled down on his blunt comments about 72 employees fired from the agency in the past three months, taking to the comments section of New Times' website to answer readers' points personally.
But under criticism from some readers, he attempted to clarify: "I have referred to those fired for egregious misdeeds as bullies, liars, harassers, racists . . . Folks dismissed for performance are an entirely different matter."
Jeffries, a businessman, was appointed to his post in March by Governor Doug Ducey. He told New Times last week that the 72 people he let go had "egregious" stains on their records that often went back years.
A devout Catholic, Jeffries said he feels a deep responsibility to his employees and to Arizona's needy. He said he wants to reshape the DES into the best agency of its kind in the country. Reform should not be as difficult as it once was since the state separated the DES from its child-welfare arm, creating the Department of Child Safety.
But the $700 million DES still is one of the state's largest agencies, with 7,600 employees running 40 social-service programs, including adult protective services, unemployment payouts, and welfare.
As part of his changes, he has implemented a whistle-blowing program and "Same-Day Exit," in which employees he determines are the worst are dismissed almost immediately.
No matter how busy he gets, Jeffries said, he prefers to respond to people directly, whether they be the governor, other department heads, or average employees. He said he's responded to more than 2,000 e-mails from DES workers since taking his state job.
Since New Times' story was posted last week, he has defended his actions in sometimes detailed responses to readers — who both praised and criticized him — and to former DES employees.
"Hummm . . . has a familiar sound to it," wrote reader Kathy Dehnel. "Seems like an awful lot of bullies and liars to me. Kind of like J. Edgar Hoover,"
"Thank you, Kathy," Jeffries replied. "I appreciated the opportunity to comment. Actually, 72 employees is less than one percent of 7,650 colleagues. Have a great day."
Diedra Burghard Freedman wrote that she knew a manager with the DES' Division of Developmental Disabilities who recently was terminated despite doing the best job she could.
"Thank you, Dierdre. I appreciate your comments," Jeffries said. "Please understand that only the bullies, liars, harassers, racists, and slackers are referred to as such. Other folks depart for other reasons, and they are not referred [to] like the others."
This sparked comments from other other readers, including Nanette Bowers Gerber, who wrote: "Leaders must lead by example. [Calling people] dead weight and losers. That is not cool. If some folks needed to go then they needed to go. However, that should still be handled with dignity. After all, employees are people who by their loss of employment may become clients of the DES."
Jeffries responded to her: "I did not call any employees 'dead weight'" or 'losers.' I have referred to those fired for egregious misdeeds as bullies, liars, harassers, racists, and the like because that is what many of them were. Folks dismissed for performance are an entirely different matter. And, BTW, I did not go to press with any of this. An employee who was fired brought this to the press. I would have been A-OK to remain out of the press. I am just doing my job that taxpayers like you pay me to do."
Jeffries said none of the fired employees has sued over his actions. However, people have 180 days to file a notice of claim for grievances against state agencies, meaning some still could be preparing cases.
New Times has spoken to at least three people who claimed to have been fired from the DES recently for unjustified reasons.
Each said many employees do not fit into Jeffries' disparaging categorizations and that some did not deserve to be fired. Some terminated workers were whistle-blowers who had threatened to disclose DES problems, they maintained.
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One reader, MeJenta Spencer, wrote that she thinks Jeffries' ideas are "great" — but that she was fired because a "bully called HR with lies about me." She wrote a letter to Jeffries, but "he did nothing," she claimed.
Jeffries responded to her, somewhat cryptically: "Your letter was received, researched, and addressed. I wish you well in the future."
One of the readers who praised the new director was Kathy Welch, who said: "I think Jeffries is just what the agency needed."