July 15, 2007

"You Are Either In ... or ... You Are O-U-T"

A letter regarding the upcoming UC Board of Chosen Freeholders sponsored MusicFest 2007 and other events including a walkathon that morning reads:

“I am personally committed to these causes, and have joined forces with those organizations benefiting from the walkathon, including the Love Hope Strength Foundation and the NJ Citizens Coalition for Cures. Once you have had a chance to read the enclosed material, I hope you will register for this walkathon. I will be walking on Sept 15….and we look forward to having you join us!”

Addressed “To all County Employees” on County of Union letterhead bearing the official county seal and signed by George W. Devanney, County Manager the letter also says that the first step is to register for the Rock On! Walkathon by signing up and viewing updates by visiting http://www.ucmusicfest.com/.

Showing the letter to one of my grown children, click HERE to view the letter who is not at all political and lives in another county I posed a question to her.

Inquiring that if she received that letter from the Chief Operating Officer of the chain of hair salons she is employed by, what would she think and do.

She responded without hesitation, “I would be on the website signing up because I want to keep my job.” I would have to speculate that there are many of the 3,000 county employees who reacted just that way upon receiving this written communication.

Federal and State laws exist which address promoting Politics, Religion and Charity/Volunteerism in the workplace and employers must be careful that their “encouragement” does not lead to compulsion which poses legal risks under these laws.

How an employer approaches a volunteer situation is of paramount importance because in some cases for some types of off duty charity projects employees can actually expect to be monetarily compensated for the volunteer work that they undertake for the employer.

Stacey Mark, Chair of the Labor and Employment Group at the legal firm Ater Wynne LLP in her 2006 “Employment Roundtable” memo entitled “Pushing Politics, Religion and Charity at Work” offers two examples of communicating volunteerism to employees for comparison:

“Employer will sponsor a team of volunteers at the homeless shelter next Thursday evening. Please contact human resources for information if you are interested”.

As opposed to:

“Employees are encouraged to show their community spirit and civic- mindedness by participating in next Thursday’s company volunteer event at the homeless shelter. Sign up today with human resources”.

According to Mark though the later version is more effective, it may be characterized as more coercive and employers are advised to have the charity organization do the recruiting for them and have the activities directed by the charitable organization with managers staying out of the mix, to include the day of the event, steps that the county manager has not taken so far.

In his letter to county employees Mr. Devanney states that “MusicFest will also offer you an opportunity to change the world” who wouldn’t feel compelled to be a team player and sign-up to be part of the team, after all team players are those who see the raises and promotions aren’t they? And what would the county manager think of an employee who wasn’t interested in saving the world?

The letter to the county workforce really should have been a simple announcement that a walkathon would be taking place the same day as the MusicFest and probably should not have directed employees to the county owned and operated website which prominently features an online sign up sheet listing the Co-Chairs, who just happen to be Democrat Assemblyman Neil Cohen, Assemblywoman Linda Stender and Freeholder Chairwoman Bette Jean Kowalski. The pressure to be a team player is certainly evident as is the pressure to support one of their favorite politically charged causes, publicly funded stem cell research..

The New Jersey Citizens Coalition for Cures is a not-for-profit group which says they are dedicated to educating the public about the importance and potential benefits of increased public funding for biomedical research including both embryonic and adult stem cell research in NJ. The NJCCC’s website clearly states that contributions to NJCCC are NOT tax deductible; this may create a fundraising issue for volunteers.

The Love Hope and Strength Foundation website states that proceeds from their various events will go to local charities, they list three. The Ryan Gibson Foundation in Texas who’s only goal is to find a cure for Leukemia and DKMS of NYC which connects bone marrow and stem cell donors with patients in need, these are commendable. And lastly and especially interesting is the Nepal Cancer Relief Society who educates the Nepalese people against the use of carcinogens.

Nepal happens to be the home of Mount Everest which Devanney is planning to climb in the near future with the founders of the Love Hope and Strength Foundation, a trip he describes as the opportunity of a lifetime.

Undoubtly, our county workforce has been backed into an unfortunate situation and may have to compromise their personal values from a political or religious standpoint if they do not personally support embryonic stem cell research and/or the co-chairs of the event who are all up for reelection this year.

More importantly they may believe that “voluntary” participation in the walkathon alongside the county manager for his favorite causes may be an indicator of who is and who isn’t a team player and in the future may determine just who is in and who could be out of a job. And what caring worker would want to deprive their boss of the opportunity of his lifetime.

Could this all lead to a disgruntled former employee filing yet another suit against the county? Only time will tell.