KSN Investigates: Allegations of workplace harassment, fears of retaliation, accusations of sexual favors — county investigating 911 employee’s exit interview

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WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Sedgwick County leaders are investigating after receiving an exit interview that included allegations of workplace harassment, fears of retaliation, and accusations of sexual favors. A former Sedgwick County 911 employee wrote the 16-page exit interview which was obtained by KSN News when the employee left the position.

The former employee described feeling “bullied and beaten down,” and said the working conditions included “berating and belittling,” and includes “gossip and drama that is fueled by and within our administration team as they feed off of each other with negativity.”

County leaders and management confirm they received the document and are investigating the allegations. However, they did not speak to specific allegations citing personnel matters.

“There’s always two sides to every story, so part of the reason that we don’t comment on personnel investigations, is it’s moral and ethical for us to hear both sides of those stories before we pass judgment, or before we take any kind of job action,” said Sedgwick County Manager Tom Stolz.

Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Howell said the allegations were “very concerning.” When KSN asked what allegations alarmed him most in the exit interview, Howell said, “well again, I don’t want to get into the details, into what they’re alleging, but honestly, I don’t know how to say this.”

When further asked if his concerns included allegations of sexual favors, Howell responded, “yeah, that’s part of it, but I think the other part of this would be that it appears that maybe other people in the workplace are aware of it too.”

“If there’s truth to these things, we’ll have some corrections made, obviously,” Howell added.

“That’s really all I can say is this is in the hands of HR right now, and they are taking this matter seriously, and going to give it its due process to get to the bottom of what is really going on,” said Sedgwick County Commissioner Lacey Cruse.

Charts: Reasons cited for leaving

In the exit interview document, the former employee wrote, “I tried to create good relationships with my co-workers…the result was ending up in the office accused of being a prostitute, and mocked by the director of my agency” — this was in reference to the office of the former employee’s manager.

The former employee also called the interaction “wildly inappropriate,” and alleged that management raised concerns about “call stats…not meeting standards” and responded by telling employees “cell phones were no longer allowed on the floor since we couldn’t meet the industry standard in answering the phones on time.”

Sedgwick County Emergency Communications told KSN the national standard for call answer times is that 90% of 911 calls are answered within 15 seconds. Sedgwick County is below that standard with 85% of calls answered within 15 seconds. However, the county did say its answering times improved in June 2021, when you compare it to June 2019, and June 2020.

The former employee raised concerns that the issue with call stats is due to understaffing saying, “there are physically not enough people to keep up with the call volume in the time frame that they are wanting.”

​​Sedgwick County Emergency Communications is considered fully staffed with 106 full-time positions, according to the current budget. Right now, there are 24 open positions, including 23 open dispatcher/call-taker positions and one open supervisor position. Its turnover rate currently sits at 6%, but the county says it’s typically at 4%.

Stolz said it’s very rare for Sedgwick County to be at 100% staffing, but said all of Sedgwick County government is dealing with staffing issues.

“What we’re seeing today is unprecedented where we’re at 80% percentile of filling those positions, so it’s causing us to think differently,” said Stolz. “In the county, we’re taking a holistic look, and it starts with respecting employees.”

Stolz added that includes looking into employee pay, working environments, safety expectations, management, and other employee needs.

Sedgwick County Emergency Communications Director Elora Forshee told KSN in an email that she has only seen 100% staffing one time in her 17-year career, and that only lasted for a week. She also provided two charts showing statistical information for responses from employees for why they leave, saying the data dates back to 2016 when they started during internal exit interviews.

Forshee said the proposed 2022 budget includes expanding the 911 communications center including expanding the number of 911 call-takers. She said that would allow dispatchers and call takers to remain focused on one task instead of multi-tasking and simultaneously answering 911 calls and radio traffic. She praised the staff for keeping up with the workload.

“We’re going to have to have more people, though we need to make sure we fill those 24 positions that we’re got open right now,” said Sedgwick County Commissioner David Dennis.

In an email to KSN, Forshee said she could not speak to the allegations sharing the following response:

“I wish I could respond to you with specifics from that letter, as I would welcome the opportunity to clarify and/or contest the content of the letter, but so much of what was contained has to do with personnel records that my hands are tied to speak on. That is a frustrating position to be in, if I were honest. I am thankful that I do get the opportunity to respond to those allegations through internal processes.

I’m working through that investigatory process with County leadership, responsive to their questions, but I’m really focused on how we rebuild after a tumultuous year and a half. It is time for leaders to be employee-focused and innovative in how we recruit and, most importantly, retain employees. That is where my focus is right now and I’m excited to be able to serve my team in that way.”

Howell said commissioners are open to hearing concerns from 911 employees.

“For employees, if they feel the need to talk to a commissioner, that is something I would welcome, and I think with the EMS story told, sometimes commissioners need to get involved.”

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