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Employees are sounding off about the Phoenix Water Services Department.EXPAND
Employees are sounding off about the Phoenix Water Services Department.
Elizabeth Whitman/Phoenix New Times

Customer Service Employees Are Desperate to Escape Phoenix's Water Department

Last November, Matt Rattei finally escaped the customer service division at the Phoenix Water Services Department.

“I fucking hate this place,” he told a supervisor when he quit. He’d worked at the department for 11 years.

Rattei didn’t always harbor such animosity for his employer. But in the last few years, it had become an impossible place to work, he said. He’s not the only one who feels that way.

The customer service division of the city’s vaunted Water Services Department is a toxic place to work, former and current longtime employees say. They regularly endure micromanagement, favoritism, and retaliation, they claim, and policies are arbitrarily enforced. Employees allege that when they speak out, they are targeted and punished with coachings and transfers.

Complaints to human resources or to the city’s Equal Opportunity Department lead either nowhere or to more retaliation, they say. These frustrations are driving employees like Rattei to find jobs elsewhere or simply quit.

One woman, Debbie Purcell, repeatedly asked for a schedule adjustment and location change after she was diagnosed with cancer, so that she could go to oncology appointments. She was denied multiple times and has since retired. “I can’t fight the city and cancer at the same time,” she told Phoenix New Times. Her full story is here.

The sheer number of complaints to the Equal Opportunity Department hints at frustrations from employees department-wide, and not just with customer service. In the last four years, these formal complaints of discrimination have skyrocketed.

From 2011 through 2014, employees at the Water Services Department lodged an average of 10 complaints each year. In 2015, that doubled to 20; the next year, it grew to 28 complaints. Then, in 2017, the number of complaints exploded.

That year, water services employees filed 58 complaints with the Equal Opportunity Department. Last year, they filed 53 complaints. New Times obtained these and other documents for this article following requests under state public records law.

The city says that so far this year, the Equal Opportunity Department has received 12 complaints related to water services.

The department closed some cases due to a finding of no cause, or for administrative reasons. But it also converted many of these complaints to investigations, and it found cause or negotiated settlements for a handful of them.

With the 53 complaints filed last year, for example, 15 were investigated. The department dismissed a dozen as having no cause, but it found cause with five others. In one case, it negotiated a settlement. The remaining 10 cases were closed after being dismissed for administrative reasons, dismissed by an external agency, or withdrawn. Ten cases are still open.

Complaints from 2018 cited discrimination on the basis of race (26 cases), discrimination on the basis of sex (15), and retaliation (10), as well as discrimination for disability, national origin, age, color, sexual orientation, and other reasons. Employees could cite more than one type of discrimination in lodging their complaints.

In early April, New Times requested the investigative reports stemming from these complaints. In mid-April, the city said it would take three to four weeks to provide those reports. This week, it revised that estimate to early June.

The club

Disgruntled employees at the customer service division trace their problems to one person: Deputy Director Michele Joyner.

Joyner joined the water services department in April 2014, rising to deputy director the following March, according to personnel records. Before that, Joyner was an operations manager at Phoenix's Public Works Department.

To longtime employees, it seemed that Joyner created new positions and handpicked people to fill them, even while appearing to operate within bureaucratic bounds. She quickly promoted friends, and she used those same people to target employees who questioned decisions or spoke out, they said.

One of those friends was Teresa Holguin. In November 2014, she was transferred from the public works department, where she’d worked as an accountant, to water customer services, where she became a supervisor, personnel records show.

The following March — four months later — she was promoted and given a 5 percent raise. Last October, she was promoted again, this time to a position that entailed managing three pay stations, and given another 5 percent raise.

Another person who rose through the ranks after Joyner’s arrival was Cynthia Chambers. She had worked in the Water Services Department since May 2006, spending her first year as a trainee. In 2011, she received a written reprimand for poor attendance, and the following year she was suspended for a day for the same reason.

In March 2016, after Joyner's arrival, Chambers was promoted to the position of Supervisor I. Nine months later, she was promoted again, with a 5 percent raise, personnel records show.

Last December, she was promoted again, according to emails from Holguin and Joyner.

Usually, a first promotion takes five or six years, and the next promotion usually takes another few years after that, said one customer service employee who has worked at the department for 15 years.

The source personally “never had an opportunity” to advance in the department. “I gave up,” the employee said, .
Through department spokesperson Stephanie Bracken, Joyner initially agreed to a phone interview for this piece. After being sent a written list of initial questions, the call time was repeatedly delayed, until Bracken requested that New Times pass along questions for a written response from Joyner.

Eventually, those answers fell to Bracken, who said, “We decided it would be best for me to respond.” She said the city could not address specific personnel issues, such as the experiences of Rattei and others, although she offered general comments on the work environment at the customer service division of the award-winning Phoenix Water Services Department.

“Any contact center environment can be challenging,” Bracken said. “In 2014, Phoenix Customer Services was made up of mostly entry level positions. The division has worked hard to create a career path for employees ... At the City of Phoenix every employee has an opportunity to explore citywide job vacancies and advance their career.”

In written responses to questions about employees' claims, Kathryn Sorensen, director of the Phoenix Water Services Department, attributed those allegations in part to the demands and pressures of running a complex utility billing operation that, she said, has nearly 440,000 accounts and bills about $850 million annually.

"Every allegation regarding favoritism, retaliation, discrimination or mistreatment that is brought to my attention, or the attention of the Water Services Department generally, is taken seriously and investigated thoroughly and impartially," Sorensen said. "Several complaints in the Customer Service Division have been raised in my tenure here ... Each has been carefully investigated but in only one case that I can recall have allegations been substantiated."

If employees had complaints about management, it was because "we hold employees to high expectations," she wrote. Complaints to the Equal Opportunity Department, she added, had increased because "I empower people to speak up." She pointed out that while the number of complaints had increased, "there has not been a commensurate increase in the number of cause findings."

"Michele [Joyner] and her managers have worked to reorganize the division and reclassify vacant positions to provide an enhanced career ladder of opportunities for her employees," Sorensen added.

But employees, or ex-employees, see things differently. They say that Joyner has fostered a toxic culture that employees want to flee.

“If you’re not one of them, you’re intimidated, bullied, in subtle ways. Some people quit. Early retirement. Or just plain leave the city,” said one current employee, who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution.

The city won’t share attrition rates since Joyner took over.

In response to repeated questions about how many employees the Customer Service Division had in 2014, and how many employees work there now, Bracken offered the same response: “Since 2014, the Customer Services Division has had approximately 158 employees.”

Siberia

Matt Rattei said he enjoyed working at the Water Services Department until his final year. His breaking point came when he was transferred to a different work location following a mistake he said no one could prove was his.

In April 2018, Rattei held the position of lead — a rung below supervisor, and a rung above customer service representative — at a pay station, where customers can pay bills in person.

At the time, the Water Service Department had three such satellite stations. Today, it operates two, in addition to the downtown call center at 305 West Washington Street. Employees call the latter “305,” or they refer to it as Siberia, a punitive destination. Once condemned to 305, they say, employees rarely return.

Occasionally, Rattei dealt with customers face-to-face, at the window. One of his other responsibilities was to respond to customers via email and start, stop, or transfer water service electronically.

One day, he was told that he’d made a mistake by typing the name of a customer’s spouse where the mailing address belonged. With no mailing address in the system, the customer never received their bills, and eventually, their water was turned off.

The error, Rattei was told, had occurred in November 2017 — nearly six months earlier. Meanwhile, he estimated he had completed more than 1,100 emails, all of them error-free. Nevertheless, he was told he needed a coaching, contrary to the circumstances defined in union contracts and city policy.

The city's union contract defines a coaching as “a verbal discussion or meeting with an employee to actively discuss problems with the employee’s performance ... not to be considered a first offense for purposes of progressive discipline.” City policy for cash shortages and overages states that coaching should occur with "4-6 incidents."

Debbie Purcell, the same woman the city refused to accommodate after she was diagnosed with cancer, was Rattei’s supervisor and was instructed to give Rattei the coaching. She defended him and questioned the degree of punishment multiple times. She repeatedly told Cynthia Chambers, who ordered the coaching, that Rattei had never before made such an error.

“Would you please explain how you know that Matt input her name to the overriding address line?” she wrote Chambers in one email. There was no evidence that it was his error, she pointed out. After giving him the coaching, she wrote Chambers in another email, “It was not easy to relay the information as I do not have any proof showing his ID input that line.”

Rattei said he went to Chambers and said that if they could prove the error was his, he’d be happy to take responsibility. “I said, ‘You’re going to put this into my file? How do you skip over saying, ‘Hey look, we believe you made an error. Here’s a verbal warning’?”

Bracken, who also fielded questions addressed to Chambers, again declined to comment on specific personnel issues, but said that generally, a coaching did not constitute discipline.

The next work day, Rattei screwed up at the customer service window, leaving the cash drawer short $50. He blamed the mistake on the toxic culture fostered by Joyner and implemented by underlings like Chambers, and the added pressure from the coaching.

“I think that they have this idea that there should be no mistakes, and to me, my personal thing is, if you use that grip of fear, all it does is make people mess up more, because they’re constantly worried about messing up,” Rattei said.

After that, Chambers told Purcell to give Rattei a supervisory counseling — a step above a coaching. She also began pushing for Rattei to be sent to 305. Purcell protested, saying that even though other staffers who were supervised by Chambers had made the same error, only Rattei was being punished.

Chambers replied to Purcell, “This is a matter of consistency and how we have previously handled these.”

Emails between Joyner and Teresa Holguin at the end of 2018 — after Rattei had left — suggest otherwise. In response to a query from human resources, which Joyner appeared to ignore for two weeks, she spelled out the department’s policy for the cash overages or shortages of $50 or more.

The policy requires supervisors to report “the variance” to supervisors and to the finance department, Joyner's email said. She added that Chambers “consistently moved staff to the 305 for extreme/over short,” but just one employee is listed as having suffered that consequence under Chambers: Matt Rattei.

'I felt like I had PTSD when I left'

At the beginning of May 2018, Rattei was transferred to Siberia. Because of his new work location and schedule, he was consistently late to pick up his children from his ex-wife’s home. He repeatedly asked for changes, and repeatedly he was denied, he said.

By November, Rattei had found a new job outside the city of Phoenix. In his exit interview, a human resources analyst took two full pages of notes, jotting down Rattei’s allegations that errors were met with excessive punishments, that there were no written policies for moving employees to different locations, or that if there were, employees hadn’t been made aware of them, and that punishments were selectively dispensed.

For Rattei's response to one question, "If you could give any advice to someone coming in as you, what would that be?” the analyst wrote a single word: “Don’t.”

Rattei never filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Department, he said, because he had tried to talk directly to Joyner and Sorensen, to no avail. By the time his new job came through, "I just figured I was washing my hands of the city," he said.

Six other current or former employees that New Times spoke with extensively for this piece echoed Rattei’s claims about micromanagement, retaliation, and favoritism. All but Purcell and Rattei spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retribution because they still worked in the department, worked for a different department of the city, or had relatives working for the city. Some had filed complaints with the Equal Opportunity Department that had been dismissed or were still open.

At 305, employees were severely micromanaged, said one former employee.

“We couldn’t make decisions on our own, and if you did choose to make a decision ... you’d have to get everything okayed before you make any kind of change or any type of request,” said the person, who worked at the Water Services Department for seven years.

“I was working on the phones, and we were required to have customers on and off the phone within two minutes,” the former employee said. Sometimes, customers just wanted to know their account balances, and so two minutes was plenty, the ex-employee said. Other times, questions were more involved, like why their water bills were so high.

Once calls surpassed those two minutes, a supervisor would intervene.

“They have this system where they could see how long you’re on the call, and they’d like, instant message you,” the ex-employee recalled. “It’d pop up on your screen asking, ‘Do you need help?’ And you’re starting a new service, taking a new payment, doing whatever you need to do to get the job done.”

“I felt like I had PTSD when I left,” the former employee said. “I just tried to last through it, because I got a mortgage to pay.”

Eventually, the employee found a job at a different department in the city.

Sorensen, the Water Services Department director, said that complaints about micromanagement often stemmed from "the amount of time that employees are expected to be on the phones to assist customers ... Certainly it can be stressful to be on the phone most of the day, but we must also provide the best customer service and lowest call wait times possible."

Other complaints commonly related to reassignments in work locations, Sorensen noted. She explained, "The Customer Service Division follows a standard practice of reassigning work locations and duties when an employee's cash drawer is out of balance by more than $50 ... to protect rate payer money and uphold public trust in our utility billing operations."

In general, she said, "contact centers" like the customer service divsion are "a high-pressure environment," and supervisors and managers "do what they can to keep spirits high." Sorensen cited "Popcorn Thursday, Jeans Day, Favorite Hat Day, cookie contests, salsa contests, pancake breakfasts, and pizza parties" as examples. (The city doesn't pay for this food, she said.)

On Wednesday, the city of Phoenix announced on Twitter that it is hiring “talented individuals for multiple positions” in its Water Services Department, “one of the leading utilities in the nation.”

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