Thursday, September 18, 2008

Catch-22 and the Administrative Assistants

One of the often overlooked positions within the Harris County District Attorney's Office (absurdly) is the position of the Administrative Assistant (aka the Secretary). Sadly, the Administrative Assistant is often underappreciated in most offices across the world, when those of us who rely on them all know that we could not function without them.

At the District Attorney's Office, the Administrative Assistants have to deal with the overbearing egos of the prosecutors they assist, the overbearing egos of the attorneys that call to speak with said prosecutors, annoyed and often clueless witnesses, angry defendants, and bereaved victims. In between, they keep their fingers on the location of every file handled by their prosecutors, arrange meetings, type grand jury agendas, and basically play the parent role to everyone in their court.

In a word, they are all priceless in the positions in which they hold.

In return, they get paid what you might expect that a county employed administrative assistant might get paid.

In the face of Hurricane Ike, these irreplaceable members of the D.A.'s Office got caught in a Catch-22 that was not fair to them, and did not treat them with the respect that they all deserve as valuable members of the District Attorney's Office.

Before I go on, please realize that I am not criticizing Ken Magidson, because these decisions were not his. The sad reality is that the Harris County District Attorney's Office is a cog in the Harris County Bureaucracy.

As Hurricane Ike approached on Friday, the powers that be within the County declared a "Floating Holiday" that allowed all county employees to be off, in order to prepare for looming disaster. The concern on the "front side" of the storm was nice.

After Ike came through over the weekend, one of the biggest problems it created within the Harris County Criminal Justice Center was a back up of raw sewage that pretty much permeated the first floor of the building. Trust me on this one, folks -- it was freaking NASTY!

Nevertheless, the order came that employees were to report to work on Monday, or to take a Vacation Day or use their Compensation Time (which employees were strongly encouraged to do). The big problem with that is that while the prosecutors and investigators may easily accumulate "comp time", the Administrative Assistants do not. They work an 8 to 5 job, and earning "comp time" for them is virtually impossible. Sure, they could dip into their vacation time, but most of them were carefully saving their time for the upcoming Christmas holidays.

They were faced with the decision to either come into work in unsanitary conditions, cut short their upcoming Christmas vacations, or have their paychecks docked. In the alternative, employees could "work from home" (which is no problem for a prosecutor, and perhaps not an investigator), but the Adminstrative Assistant's job description requires their presence at the Office.

There was no "work from home" scenario for the them.

The bottom line was that the Administrative Assistants had to come to work, or lose money or vacation time.

That doesn't sound all that fair, does it?

Think that isn't fair? Wait a second.

This story gets worse.

After arriving at the Office on Monday, as told to do, a memo went out that the sewage back up on the first floor of the CJC had created a "Safety Hazard". The result of this "safety hazard" was that all "non-essential personnel" had to leave the building immediately.

Guess who qualifies as the "non-essential personnel".

If you guessed the Administrative Assistants, you would be guessing correctly.

Yep, the Administrative Assistants who came in -- burning preciously scarce gasoline -- were told to get out of the building almost immediately.

And so they did. They weren't allowed to work on Monday, nor on Tuesday.

That's all fine and good, until the Edict came down from the Commissioner's Court today, stating that there would be no more "floating holidays" added to the one given for the previous Friday.

What does that translate to?

It means that the Administrative Assistants weren't ALLOWED to work on Monday or Tuesday, yet they aren't being paid for the days that they were ORDERED to be absent from the job. It means that if they want their full paychecks on the next payday that they will have to cut short their long-planned vacations in December.

What part of that sounds fair, exactly?

I understand that the County Officials have a lot of things that they are dealing with at the moment. This Hurricane has affected us all.

But the policy signed off on by the Commissioners today really screws over the folks that are probably the most overworked and underpaid members of the District Attorney's Office.

And folks, that just ain't right.

I hope that at some point, our County Commissioners will reconsider how short-sighted their decision was and make this right for some of the hardest working employees that the County has to offer.


cjclawyer said...

Are we allowed to share comp time? Can we give some of ours to our secretaries to use for Mon and Tues?

Anonymous said...

it seems as though the employees of the CJC don't have a "voice" that carries any weight with the commissioners....maybe those folks and the county judge FORGOT that they are ELECTED....

TexasYellowDog said...


Anonymous said...

I agree with what you said, but the secretaries were not the only ones getting screwed. Frankly, many ADAs were dealing with enormous issues in the days following Ike: no power, no water, damage to their homes, making sure their children and loved ones were safe, fed, and taken care of. I don't think that "working from home" was an option for most when dealing with these difficult circumstances. Many ADAs have children that needed to be taken care of. Many ADAs had trees on their roofs and power lines down in their yards. I think it is absurd to expect these people to work from home under these circumstances.

The office has shown nothing but a cold shoulder towards its hundreds of employees. We are getting coldly worded emails about having to bring children to work when there is no childcare option for some. Not everyone has a spouse, or grandparents to help with childcare and many schools are closed.

There has not been one single email addressing the health and well-being of the employees. It's just, show up, don't show up, show up early, go home, take your vacation time, don't bring kids to the office, etc. I have about had enough. And they wonder why we can't keep good people at the DAs office. Geez.

Anonymous said...

Ken has shown he has the huevos to change things quickly and to make important decisions as needed. I do not understand why he doesn't stand up to the Commissioners and tell them what they are doing is wrong. Ken has nothing to lose.

My admin assistant STILL does not have power, or child care, or hot water - and she has been here everyday.

Just when you think your job can't treat you any worse......this crap happens.

whimsicalrandomness said...

my office, me and my co-workers fall in the same catch-22 and i agree with much of the concern and feedback here. the road to recovery does require action to get back to the norm, but i do think that some decisions are not being considered with the best interest of the employees of harris county. we need to serve the citizens of harris county, and before then, harris county needs to serve its employees. as a side question, was the building ever inspected by the health officials and given the official green light?

Anonymous said...

I am so glad someone else sees the unfair treatment of the secretaries during all this, and all the valid arguments we have. While other companies were paying for their employees to get out of town, paying for their hotels, food, out generators, gas, water, ice...necessities...we get thrown to the bottom of the bucket like always. I'm not asking for generators, money, or gas. I'm asking for 2 holiday days so we don't have to burn OUR hard-earned time. They could even take away the extra day off at Thanksgiving & Christmas to make up for those2 days, maybe then we would have a longer amount of time to build our vacation time up to take off those days if we wanted. But no. We're just administrative assistants. We're apparently a dime a dozen. I realize we have it pretty decent here, compared to most secretaries at other places, I guess. But this is the freaking HARRIS COUNTY. WE'RE taxpayers too! Just because we work here, doesn't make us tax-immune. I wonder if they thought this would really make us continue go that extra mile and pour our heart & soul into our job.
Thanks AHCL for showing that we really DO matter and we really ARE appreciated by at least one person.

r. becca said...

i can not agree with you more on this and being an emotional pregnant woman i can't say that this didn't bring a tear to my eye because a lot of prosecutors DON'T see things the way you do and it's refreshing to read that you feel this way and that it bothers you as much as it bothers us. thank you so much.

r. becca said...

i meant to say that DID bring a tear to my eye. LOL

Anonymous said...

Isn't ironic that JUDGE EMMET is also one that told people of Houston and Harris county not to venture into Downtown until they had checked least for Monday? Just a sidenote. I agree with you AHCL. The secretaries are getting screwed. And while I heard a superior (one of the old school people) just sort of act like, well, you have the whole pay period to make up the time, just take work home with, or get here earlier, or stay later, or work through your lunch hour. What these people are forgetting is everyone is still dealing with the aftermath of IKE! Problems getting gas... no power... I mean a lot of people are still without power! Childcare is still an issue! But you can cart your kids off to the YMCA and dump them with people you don't know and pay extra money that is probably scarce right now! RIDICULOUS! It doesn't affect me..I don't have kids. But it is absolutely the most ridiculous and crappy thing that the county has done in a long time.

Does anyone else know if any other buildings has the unique situation that we do? Building was closed?

Michael said...

I hear tell getting around Houston isn't a Sunday drive these days either.

Whom do I yell at? Send me phone numbers.

Tenderfoot said...

Why ain't I surprised?

cjclawyer said...

Gale Walker said we could share comp time with admin assistants if we want to.

Thomas Hobbes said...

This item, originating with the Commissioners Court on Thursday and sent out Friday by HRRM, may address some issues . . .

"Because of Hurricane Ike, many County departments are not operating as usual. Some departments are working around-the-clock providing vital emergency management services to the citizens, including, but certainly not limited to, police protection, public health services, and debris removal. Other departments are busy assessing the damage to County buildings and initiating remedial plans. We are thankful for those employees who have been working hard throughout this serious event and wish them continued good luck with their endeavors.

Some departments, however, have employees who were not able to perform their normal job duties earlier this week, either because of building conditions or because of the nature of the work. We hope the following information will assist departments in providing appropriate options for this portion of the work force.

First, employees who want to use vacation or compensatory time to handle personal or family losses arising out of Hurricane Ike’s destruction should be permitted to do so as long as it does not unduly disrupt the department’s operations. Our employees’ health and safety is the first priority.

Department Heads also have the discretion to allow employees to perform actual work from any alternative location that has the resources necessary to get the job done, including the employee’s home. This work may include research projects or any other work that benefits the individual department.

Department Heads may also allow employees who have missed hours since the storm to make up those hours between now and September 26th. Human Resources & Risk Management is ready to provide training at 1310 Prairie evenings next week from 5 PM to 9 PM. Employees can attend for just the number of hours they need. In addition to live training, HRRM also has books and videos available. Training topics include, but are not limited to, writing skills, leadership skills, employee development, time management, and respect in the workplace. Please call 713-755-5025 to RSVP for this opportunity. Departments will need to make sure employees work only the hours needed to make up the time missed. Additionally, departments can use whatever training resources they have to provide similar opportunities for their employees.

Finally, if an employee does not have enough regular County work and/or paid leave to reach their required time for the week, he/she may, with their Department Head’s approval, fill in those hours by providing services that have a valid public purpose. Examples of such services include: working at a FEMA POD (point of distribution), working at a Red Cross Shelter, or working with a non-profit or religious entity providing assistance to the general public. Examples of services that do not provide a valid public purpose include: making repairs at an employee’s home or helping a neighbor or family member. Department Heads should take reasonable measures to verify that the services were actually performed.

We hope this information is helpful to you. Please do not hesitate to contact our office if you need further assistance."

Anonymous said...

Added note.

These are the same commissioners who can give themselves a 20% plus increase when the regular employees of the county get the maybe 2-3& cost of living raise. The employees are the ones showing up to work everyday, doing what is expected and not being rewarded fairly. The Commissioners on the other hand raise their salaries, play golf (Eversole), campaign or work on their own and other campaigns while being paid to represent the taxpayers.

It isn't fair. My heart goes out to each of you.