Thursday, July 18, 2024

The personnel department at Cambridge City Hall in 2017. The department is now known as human resources. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Mayoral staff who report going to Cambridge’s human resources department with complaints of a toxic workplace and coming away without help are just the latest in a line of frustrated municipal workers. Changes to correct the problem continue under a new city manager.

City councillors and worker lawsuits have sounded alarms since at least the fall of 2019 about unaddressed employee grievances. Councillors passed an order unanimously then to determine whether the complaint system was “functioning.” It got no response.

That order by city councillors overlooked their own offices and that of the mayor, who is a member elevated from within their own ranks to lead for the two-year term. But council and mayoral staff have an extra layer of complication when it comes to problems with their employers: The city expresses confusion about how to even handle their complaints.

A Boston Globe report from Oct. 16 said eight women had complaints dating back to 2017 about a toxic working environment under Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui. Reporting since then confirmed that several complaints were made to the personnel office run by director Sheila Keady Rawson, including to Keady Rawson directly. (While the Globe included comments from a campaign staffer, that person wasn’t interviewed for this article.)

“Sheila seemed to write down what I said,” one of the former workers said, “but I have no idea what, if anything, was done with my feedback.”

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui at a Black Lives Matter rally in Cambridge Common on June 7, 2020. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A second staffer who went in to complain of co-workers being treated with “inappropriate and unprofessional” behavior and a boss with “a very serious anger problem” said she got an unexpected answer: “I was surprised at the time when Sheila said they couldn’t do anything because of how the structure of our government was.”

Another said that by the time she made her own trip to talk with Jamie Matthews, deputy director of personnel, she was prepared for disappointment. “It was easy to arrange a conversation with somebody in HR and explain why I was talking to them and what my concerns were,” the staffer said, but “I could not get follow-up. For three weeks I continued to email and escalate. I never heard back.”

Department needed updates

Things were confusing from the other side as well, Siddiqui said Tuesday by phone.

When the Globe article was coming out, “I went to HR and said ‘What is this? I’ve never heard anything’” about staffer complaints, Siddiqui said. “And HR said, ‘We weren’t aware of any issues with you either.’”

The city decided on Tuesday not to make personnel staff or another spokesperson available for an interview.

City Manager Yi-An Huang identified the department as a problem immediately upon taking office in September 2022. Reform was one of his first initiatives, and on Oct. 3, 2022, he called the department 21 percent to 43 percent understaffed for a city with 1,636 full-time employees, more than 1,100 part-timers and a dozen unions, in part because it was using paper-based practices. “We all recognize the irony that as a hub of innovation, we are still using technology and processes from more than 20 years ago,” Huang said at the time. He won approval from the City Council to create the role of a chief people officer who would be above Keady Rawson.

That chief people officer, Raecia Catchings, began work June 6.

Conflicting responses

Sheila Keady Rawson, right, at a June 20, 2017, public forum with then-police commissioner finalist Branville G. Bard Jr. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Asked about the structural problem Keady Rawson had reportedly described to the mayoral staffer – that a department run by the city manager in the executive branch of municipal government can’t help staffers from the legislative branch – city spokesperson Jeremy Warnick at first said it wasn’t true.

“City of Cambridge employee complaints have always been treated the same regardless of the office or department,” Warnick said in an Oct. 25 email. Catchings was his source for that statement, he said.

Since Catchings at that time had been on the job for less than five months, Warnick was asked how she would know – and on Nov. 9 he said the policy had been “affirmed by Catchings after conferring with other HR staff who have a longer history with the city.”

“We have a responsibility and obligation to all city staff and we take all complaints seriously,” Warnick said.

Yet in the same November email, Warnick went on to confirm the structural problem that Catchings had him denying two weeks earlier.

“As you know, the city manager is hired by and reports to the City Council, which is chaired by the mayor. As it relates to your inquiry, this is a unique circumstance, as the city manager does not have authority in holding elected officials accountable for their management practices,” Warnick said, “whereas the city has management authority to pursue actions with department heads.”

“You can’t have it both ways”

Adrienne Klein on Election Day, when she was a challenger for Cambridge City Council. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The City Manager’s Office did claim legal authority over legislative employees, though, in a July 13 memo sent after a staffer in Siddiqui’s office, Adrienne Klein, said she wanted to run for City Council. Because that could look like a conflict of interest, an employee “shall either resign or take an unpaid leave of absence from their employment with the city” upon becoming a candidate, the memo says. (Huang told the Globe that Siddiqui asked “that we look into” Klein’s plan to run for office while employed by the city.) Klein has returned to Siddiqui’s office since the election.

Alanna Mallon, the departing vice mayor under Siddiqui for the past four years, emailed the city manager July 14 looking for answers. “I would think that one department or departments cannot be treated any differently under the law in this type of case,” Mallon wrote, calling the one-page policy “incredibly concerning.”

Asked last month about the letter, Mallon said by phone that “it has been the stance of the administration to say ‘We don’t have authority over those individuals.’ My response has been, ‘You certainly had authority over them when you put forward a policy that limits City Council and mayoral staff when they’re running for office.”

“You can’t have it both ways,” Mallon said.

The personnel department has been involved in past mayors’ offices; on Tuesday councillor Marc McGovern, who was mayor from 2018 to 2019, said he had brought in HR to help deal with staff issues via a consultant. He acknowledged “it’s a weird dynamic: Aides are city employees, but they don’t go through the city hiring process.”

Shaken confidence?

An Oct. 31 memo to municipal employees from Catchings and Deidre Brown, chief of the city’s Office of Equity & Inclusion, said they’d been listening to department heads and workers over the past few months to “identify gaps” around providing safe workplaces.

“In light of recent news attention on the city, we recognize that confidence may be questioned,” the memo said, without clarifying whether the situation drawing that attention could even be addressed by city staff.

In addition to recruiting more staff, making case management rates and statuses more accessible and announcing new policies, Catchings and Brown said they planned to “launch an automated case management process to capture and streamline the process to resolve employee concerns, complaints and grievances.”

City councillor Patty Nolan said she “looked forward to a restructuring” of the department, including the implementation of annual employee reviews that should have happened “years ago.”

Without a process in place, it could be argued that it was hard to know in which city departments there were personnel problems piling up. “The city does not have a case management system for tracking employee complaints and allegations,” Warnick said. “Complaints that are investigated with formal discipline and feedback are documented in individual files.”

Problems back to 2010s

The personnel department was made up of 13 people for the three years before Huang’s arrival, according to published city budgets – it is now 16 – and some of those have specific focuses such as recruitment or workers compensation that narrow the list of people handling complaints. Still, others in the city said they knew where complaints were focused without even being in the personnel department.

After a $14 million series of losses for the city in discrimination lawsuits wrapping up in the early 2010s under former city manager Robert W. Healy, successor Richard C. Rossi spoke of lessons learned. Rossi promised to change the tenor of treatment and ensure complaints were addressed quickly and fairly. By the time Louis A. DePasquale took office after Rossi, though, the council order in 2019 was described by councillor E. Denise Simmons as “years in the making.”

The city’s Information Technology Department was identified as just one source of complaints from women who said they “feel trapped in a toxic environment” where they are not treated as equals with the same rules or chances for advancement. A Department of Public Works employee filed suit in 2020, saying her meetings with Keady Rawson, then-city solicitor Nancy Glowa and DePasquale were fruitless and the officials were interested only in asking whether there were examples of sexual harassment within the statute of limitations.

City manager’s defense

Glowa, who retired in September, was accused by a plaintiff in that $14 million batch of settlements of acting in a discriminatory manner, the Cambridge Chronicle reported in November 2011. The case of the complainant, who’d work with Glowa in the city’s Law Department, was settled with that of another plaintiff in 2011 for $3.9 million without the city admitting wrongdoing.

“I hoped we had learned our lesson that we had to do something different around employee grievances,” Simmons said in 2019. “I’m tired of hearing the same type of complaints from the same departments coming from city employees year after year. [They] would not be coming to me if a system were in place.”

In the spring of last year, as DePasquale’s term was in its final months, around 130 empty municipal positions remained open on the city website, many unfilled for more than a year. Councillors pressed city staff to get past several missed deadlines and put in a place a telework policy that would let Cambridge catch up with communities from Brookline and Lexington to Brockton and Lowell. DePasquale bristled and lashed out at councillors for disrespecting him.

“The employees don’t need the City Council to come to the rescue here,” DePasquale said.

Learned from first term

In a statement sent Wednesday, Siddiqui said she has managed upward of 25 people over the past nearly seven years and “a majority have regularly brought up positive feedback, and I have also received feedback on areas for improvement that I have worked to respond to.”

Siddiqui sent a full statement for inclusion:

The alleged instances mentioned in The Boston Globe article or brought to Cambridge Day were never informally or formally brought to my attention by the personnel department or any current or former employee. I strongly reject any notion that I have ever created a toxic workplace.

The specific accusations referenced are mischaracterizations, leveled anonymously. However, I take any concern as an opportunity to reflect and improve my supervisory skills. I have high standards, both personally and professionally, and I have learned a great deal as a manager over the past six years on how to most constructively provide and accept feedback. Staff well-being is something I take very seriously. I’ve worked with the city manager and chief people officer to ensure there are better HR policies and systems in place for all staff, including mine.

I am proud of my team and the work we have done to make our community a better place to live for the people who call Cambridge home.

Her first term was interrupted almost immediately by the Covid pandemic, Siddiqui noted by phone. “I wasn’t perfect,” she said.

“I learned a lot from my first term,” she said. “I think if you talk to my current staff, a lot have positive things to say.”

A staffer who had brought her issues to the personnel department agreed in an interview that things improved in Siddiqui’s second term as mayor.

Staff departures

While there was testimony from various periods of mayoral staff about day to day workplace issues, all who said they spoke with the personnel department agreed that there were fears of retaliation whenever staff left Siddiqui’s employment. Though sources who also spoke to the Globe said many of their stories were cut out of that paper’s final version, the Globe article did discuss staff departures.

The article left some in the community uncertain about the validity of the complaints. “Believe all women, right?” one official said. “It if was just one person … but when I read The Boston Globe article and it was eight women, that really gave me pause. I don’t want to be part of a chorus saying this is no big deal.”

Mallon had a different experience when she worked in 2015-2016 as education liaison to former mayor David Maher, who was conscious of the short-term nature of the work and need to help staffers transition. “In August or September he was like, ‘Guys, you gotta start looking. Jobs don’t happen overnight, and this ends Dec. 31. If you have health insurance or family members that are counting on you, you gotta get a move on,’” Mallon recalled.

A staffer said she brought up fears of retaliation about her own departure to Keady Rawson.

“I asked if there could be a training or anything that she could do,” the former staffer said. “And she was like, ‘Well, you know, the mayor doesn’t work for us. We work for her. So there’s nothing we can do.’”