Guard members say they were denied promotions at Springfield prison
07/20/09 7:49AM By Nina Keck
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(Host) Several members of the Vermont National Guard who were working as temporary corrections officers at the state prison in Springfield, say they were systematically denied permanent jobs because of their upcoming deployment. Some say they were fired outright.
VPR's Nina Keck reports that at least one plans to take legal action.
(Keck) Tim Nolan is proud of his long military career. The 42-year old Chittenden resident pages through a thick binder containing his Army and National Guard honors.
(Nolan) "This is the book I keep - basically it's all my awards from the military and educational background. (sound of pages) These are all medals that I've earned. And I showed them this with all my letters of recommendation and they thought that was great."
(Keck) By "they" he means the prison officials who hired him last October to be a corrections officer at Vermont's Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield. Nolan says he was excited by the prospect of a new career there.
(Nolan) "They said this is a great career move - this will be great for you. And all the way up until I notified them that I was deploying my career was on track. The second I went to the academy came back and notified them that I was deploying they said - oh . . . ah, things have changed."
(Keck) Nolan was hired as a temporary Corrections Officer. Temporary officers cover holidays and vacations for permanent staff, but make less money and receive no state benefits. Nolan says prison officials told him most new hires are promoted to permanent jobs within 3 to 6 months.
(Nolan) "They told me it was based on seniority. You work so long and when a slot opens up the next highest guy - if they're not a complete screw up - gets the job. I thought - alright. But you have to apply. So I applied for the jobs. Then they said no, now you have to interview. So, seven people interviewed - three of them were Guardsmen, four of them were non guardsmen. Just conveniently - all three guardsmen were at the very bottom of the list."
(Keck) When he approached his superiors to find out why he'd been passed over even though he says he had more seniority than those promoted, Nolan says he never got a straight answer. He says a fellow National Guardsman, who's a shift supervisor at the prison, finally leveled with him when they were on military duty together.
(Nolan) "He goes, the reason they're not giving you positions is because you're deploying. It's common knowledge."
(Keck) Other guardsmen tell similar stories, like David Neese of Keene, New Hampshire. Neese was working as a temporary corrections officer last August. When he told prison administrators that he'd need several months off for military training in preparation for deployment, Neese says they fired him.
Daniel Brown, a guard member from Rutland was hired by the prison in January. Brown says after he completed his 5 weeks of training, everything seemed to be going well.
(Brown) "As soon as I handed my letter in from Colonel Roy stating to the employers that we would need a lot more training time this year because we were being deployed. That's when everything went down hill. I was getting put on crappy shifts. And I think they were trying to get rid of us one at a time to make it look like - you know, these guys just can't hack it."
(Keck) Brown says he asked his training officer at the prison, why he hadn't been promoted.
(Brown) "He said that there is no reason to give you a full time benefit slot if you're leaving in 8 months. Those are his exact words out of his mouth."
(Carbonell) "That's not the practice here, it's not the policy here. "
(Keck) Anita Carbonell is the prison superintendent at Springfield. She says she's received no formal complaints from any employees about the alleged discrimination and was unaware of it.
(Carbonell) "I'm a veteran. I know one of the toughest things for a veteran is coming back to no job. And it's not something that I personally, or this department or this facility would pursue as a policy."
(Keck) Carbonell says there is no guarantee that a temporary employee will be promoted to permanent status. But she says the prison is not systematically withholding benefits positions to National Guard members.
(Carbonell) "In fact, we just recommended one for promotion who we know is going to be activated."
(Keck) But Tim Nolan disputes that. He says email records of promotions at the prison indicate that the only temporary officer with military connections who was recently promoted to permanent status is a member of the Army Reserves. And unlike guard members, Nolan says reservists are not leaving for military duty. Andrew Pallito, Commissioner of Vermont's Corrections Department, says he was told about concerns at Springfield more than a week ago and had asked Superintendent Carbonell to look into them.
(Pallito) "You know if it was just one person, I would say, well obviously it's probably a personnel issue. But the fact that there's a number of these, I think we certainly we owe it to them for the commissioner's office to look into this."
(Keck) All of guardsmen interviewed for this story said they were told that as temporary officers, they could be fired by the prison for any reason. Tracey Nolan says her husband Tim agonized over the situation.
(Tracey Nolan) "I think he felt like if he spoke up and said anything, and he showed that he knew what was going on and what they were trying to do that there would be repercussions and they would fire him for some inane reason."
(Keck) Her husband and other guard members did seek help from the ESGR. That's the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a federally funded organization that helps mediate employment disputes concerning guard members. The men say they were told that ESGR staff were aware of a problem at the prison and were looking into it. ESGR officials refused to comment and said the matter was confidential. No one from the Vermont National Guard would speak about the situation either. Jim Levins, a Rutland lawyer representing Daniel Brown says he plans to file a formal complaint against the state in federal court.
(Levins) "We feel confident that there has been a violation of the law."
(Keck) Levins says the department of Corrections has violated the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.
(Levins) "Basically what that law says is when you come back that job will be there for you. And I think not discriminating against them because of their membership in one of these uniformed services is one of the least things we can do and as a society it's one of the things we aught to do."
(Keck) Tracey Nolan can't agree more. Getting her family ready for her husband's deployment to Afghanistan, she says, has been hard enough.
(Tracey Nolan) "You know, here he is going over to and you know put his life on the line for the state of Vermont. And this is a state of Vermont agency and they don't have a problem with doing this. And it's not right and it's not fair and it's made me very . . . very angry.
(Keck) The Department of Corrections expects to have a report on the situation by the end of the week.
For VPR news, I'm Nina Keck in Rutland.