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October 1, 2014

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Facebook rant hits close to home for state employee

The story is almost old hat these days.

Despite constant warnings to be careful what you post on Facebook, a disgruntled employee who is irritated at a boss, a customer or a co-worker, takes to the social networking site to vent some spleen — and ends up getting disciplined or even fired.

It’s a fate that has befallen a North Carolina waitress at a pizza restaurant, a Philadelphia Eagles stadium worker and a group of airline workers in recent months.

But what if it’s the boss who decides to use Facebook to complain about an employee?

That scenario is playing out within the state’s unemployment benefits anti-fraud unit after the agency’s manager used his personal Facebook page to complain about an unidentified employee he thinks uses too much sick time.

“Why is it that for some people FMLA stands for Family Medical Leave Act and for others, it should stand for Fire My Lazy Ass?” unit manager Steven Zuelke wrote on his Facebook page last month, hours after one of his employees left work early because she said she was sick.

Zuelke engaged in a lengthy back and forth with a group of his Facebook friends — including another state staffer who works in the same division — in which he initially mocks his employee and then rants about how difficult it is for the state bureaucracy to deal with problem workers.

He never identifies the employee, but the rant is specific enough that one of the two employees Zuelke has had on FMLA status thinks Zuelke was talking about her.

“I had to read it a few times because I was shocked and confused,” said Sherry Truell, a claims examiner who works in Zuelke’s unit and has used FMLA time extensively this year. “I was being referred to as lazy, an anchor, that other people have to do my work, stuff that related to my personal business.

“I was extremely embarrassed. My co-workers can see this information.”

Truell said she used FMLA heavily last month because of what she described as a stress-related medical condition and because her son needed surgery. She added she usually takes two or three days off a month.

Describing the Facebook rant as bullying behavior, Truell has sought the help of her union representative to address the issue and is considering filing a grievance.

“He’s discussing his employees, his work environment, he has friended multiple other employees in the same office. There are so many problems with this,” said Priscilla Maloney, labor representative for Truell’s AFSCME local.

Zuelke was reticent to talk about his Facebook postings, referring a reporter to his department’s public information officer. But he did note he did not post during working hours or using a state computer.

“What you’re asking me to do is comment on something written as a private individual and written on my own personal time as well,” he said.

He noted his division has a number of employees who use FMLA, “some for very nebulous reasons.”

(After learning that a reporter had been provided copies of his Facebook postings, Zuelke once again took to the social networking site with rambling, vaguely threatening quotations from Shakespeare and other poets on the themes of betrayal, retribution and rooting out the disloyal. He changed his Facebook profile picture to a painting of Benedict Arnold.)

Nevada doesn’t have a specific written policy on Facebook use.

But Teresa Thienhaus, director of personnel, said all managers and supervisors undergo extensive training on how to deal with personnel issues.

“These courses emphasize that it is only appropriate to speak about personnel-related matters in a private setting,” Thienhaus said in a statement.

Mae Worthy, spokeswoman for the Employment, Training and Rehabilitation Department, said the agency would investigate any disclosure of confidential information.

But what of First Amendment protections? Is an employee, manager or not, allowed to rant in a public forum such as Facebook?

Allen Lichtenstein, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said public employees are generally protected when speaking as a citizen about “matters of public concern,” such as whether the state’s bureaucracy complicates dealing with problem employees.

But when the discussion turns more specific, or is directly related to internal matters, any employee could be subject to discipline, including termination, he said.

“Making fun of a particular individual and suggesting that she’s falsifying a medical condition is not a matter of public interest,” Lichtenstein said. “He would’ve been better off just dealing with the issue and leaving personalities out of it.

“People should be careful because in the private sector, as well as the public sector those things could be problematic,” he added.

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  1. But what of First Amendment protections? Is an employee, manager or not, allowed to rant in a public forum such as Facebook?

    Uh, yes. But that doesn't mean you aren't going to lose your job for it.

  2. Regardless of the other issue involved, an employee who "usually takes two or three days off a month" needs to be fired.

  3. I completely agree with Al_Rogers. This person would have already been fired if she worked in the private sector. And rightly so. Only in a government cheese job could an employee get away with this.

  4. The lesson to be learned here is simply this: if you're going to put someone on your "friends list" on Facebook then they should probably be a friend. I treat Facebook like a gathering at my house. No one gets invited that I don't trust or actually know and like and I wouldn't say anything that I know might leave the room. My privacy settings are set up so that only someone on my friends list can see my stuff. Seems pretty simple and logical doesn't it?

    Americans have become exhibitionists and everyone wants to pretend as though they're some kind of celebrity. Only a moron would make disparaging remarks about his employees in front of other employees in such a public fashion. This article isn't about the employee and her behavior, it's about a supervisor who fraternizes with other employees in his off hours and then stupidly, and publicly, makes light of another employee. Free speech has nothing to do with being an idiot.

    Many times I've been criticized by other commenters here because I don't use my real name. The Sun limits my visibility and my comments expire because I don't share my personal information with them. The fact is you can have an opinion and make it known while still protecting your privacy. It's called Democracy. We go into a booth and pull the curtain shut and cast a vote for public officials without them ever knowing who actually voted for them. Privacy should be a matter of common sense. The Facebooking, the tweets, the Myspace rants, etc. are getting a lot of people in trouble because they don't think first about who they're sharing their personal information and private views with. Even if you're amongst friends it's never been wise to vomit out everything that pops into your head and yet people seem to think it's perfectly fine to do it over the internet.

    Americans need to wake up to reality and stop doing stupid things that they "feel sorry" about afterward.

  5. This person that takes 2-3 days off per month is very disrepectful to her co-workers that have to pick up the slack for her while she is tkaing time off when not really sick. Stressed? Then you apparently are not in the right job and you should quit and get a job that won't stress you out. I don't htink it is appropriate for the boss to be talking about his staff named or not named on facebook.

  6. I didn't think you could take a few days at a time under FMLA. I thought it had to be at least 2 weeks at a time. And it HAD to be YOUR vacation time first, and THEN the FMLA requirements kick in.

    Needless to say - 2-3 days a month is not too excessive but enough to put her co-workers at a disadvantage AND take away time that they may want to take off. When I worked for the St of NV, I was at the building on Washington and a lot of State offices are there. You would not believe the things I would hear when I was on break!! Lots of workers just refused to do their jobs, but because they were in the union, the State could not do anything about them so they kept their jobs. Coming from the pricate sector, I was appalled 'cause their in that sector - you did not try to pull the kind of crap some of these employees pulled. You were out the door.

  7. Wait just a second.. Govt employees can take free vacation days for stress??? That is ridiculous! Life is stressful, grow up and deal with it!

    That being said, a manager should keep employee drama like this private.

  8. As long as the employee has a doctor's medical certificate that justifys her being away from the office then you cannot fire her. Whether she is gov't or private industry.

    All you healthy able-bodied people who thinks she should be fired could be in the same position in a blink of an eye. And wouldn't you want someone to understand your situation as well.

    The statement about the others having to take up the slack. Well, that is what being a team is all about. When someone is down you help them out. I am sure this isn't going to be a permanent situation for her. She is just going through a time of her life trying to deal with a family situation.

  9. Chunky says:

    Also known as the "Friday Monday Leave Act", the program is abused way too often. Too bad there's not an easy way for a company and it's workers to weed out the slackers.

    That's what Chunky thinks!