U.S. OFFICE OF SPECIAL COUNSEL ANNOUNCES FAVORABLE RESOLUTION OF DeCA WHISTLEBLOWER’S COMPLAINT
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - 10/31/02
CONTACT: JANE MCFARLAND
Today, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) announced the favorable resolution of a prohibited personnel practice complaint filed by Ms. Alicia McCollum, an employee of the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA). Ms. McCollum contacted OSC last year, alleging that she had been fired in December 2000 because she had disclosed that people without military IDs, including DeCA employees, were shopping at the Fort Gillem Commissary in Forest Park, Georgia.
The settlement announced today provides full relief for Ms. McCollum including reinstatement to her previous position at a nearby but different Commissary, backpay and related benefits for approximately 21 months, and removal of her termination from her personnel records. Whistleblower Protection Act training will also be provided at the Fort Gillem Commissary.
The background of today’s settlement is as follows: Ms. McCollum was hired as a part-time Sales Store Checker at Fort Gillem in May, 2000. Married to a member of the Armed Services, Ms. McCollum had previously held this type of position at another Defense Commissary in Germany. Her performance in her mid-year progress report was rated as “excellent.”
On September 25, 2000, Ms. McCollum called the U.S. Department of Army, Fort Gillem, Garrison Hotline and left a voice mail message stating that she was a “DeCA employee” and that she was calling to report that unauthorized shoppers (without a military ID) were making purchases “everyday” at the Commissary. Believing that her phone call would be kept confidential, Ms. McCollum disclosed her name and telephone number.
Two days later, an employee of the hotline reported the text of Ms. McCollum’s phone call, along with her name and number, in an e-mail sent directly to the Commissary. Ms. McCollum’s first-line supervisor at that time, who was responsible for ensuring that only authorized patrons shop in the Commissary, was asked to address the issue. That supervisor asked Ms. McCollum why she had called the hotline and told her that she should have come to management first.
Approximately a month and a half after contacting the hotline, Ms. McCollum asked for annual leave for the 18th and 19th of November, 2000. Ms. McCollum was planning an early Thanksgiving for her daughter who was scheduled to leave for Air Force Basic Training on November 22nd. Her formerly first-line supervisor (now second-line supervisor) denied the leave request. However, she indicated that Ms. McCollum could “possibly go home early” on those days.
On November 18th, Ms. McCollum worked her 11:30 to 6:30 p.m. shift, despite having reminded her second-line supervisor about the idea of leaving early. On the evening of the 18th, Ms. McCollum became ill. On the morning of November 19th, she called her second-line supervisor to tell her that she could not come to work because she was sick. The supervisor’s response was to question whether Ms. McCollum was actually ill or if she was taking the day off as she originally planned. Ms. McCollum responded that she would not “jeopardize” her job “by calling in for the sake of it.” The supervisor responded that she would not approve the sick leave request and marked Ms. McCollum’s time and attendance sheet as being on absence without leave (AWOL).
Ms. McCollum consulted with her local union representative and he spoke to the supervisor to see if they could informally work out an arrangement, possibly by changing the AWOL to leave without pay. The supervisor told him that she wouldn’t change her mind.
On December 6, 2000, the supervisor wrote a memo about November 18th and characterized Ms. McCollum’s behavior at work as “disruptive.” She also consulted the agency’s personnel specialist because she thought that Ms. McCollum was a career employee. The personnel specialist told the supervisor that Ms. McCollum was a probationary employee and, as such, could be terminated at anytime without any disciplinary action or counseling. On December 12th, the supervisor terminated Ms. McCollum’s employment on the basis of “Disruption in the Workplace and Unauthorized Absence.” Ms. McCollum’s new first-line supervisor was not consulted about the termination and said that it “shocked” her.
When Ms. McCollum found out that she was being terminated, her husband called the agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). That office referred Ms. McCollum to OSC. OSC investigated Ms. McCollum’s complaint and concluded that there were reasonable grounds to believe her termination was retaliatory, in violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act.
In announcing the settlement, Special Counsel Elaine Kaplan stated that DeCA “had fully cooperated with OSC in working out the settlement agreement.” She observed that “if Ms. McCollum had not called the hotline, I am convinced that she would be working at the Commissary today. I am extremely pleased that we have reached a settlement that makes her whole.” She thanked DeCA “for working with us, thereby alleviating any need for OSC to pursue Ms. McCollum’s complaint through litigation.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is an independent federal agency that investigates and prosecutes complaints alleging the commission of a prohibited personnel practice, including whistleblower retaliation. Pursuant to statute, when OSC completes an investigation and finds that a prohibited personnel practice has taken place, it seeks corrective and/or disciplinary action from the employing federal agency. OSC can obtain corrective and disciplinary relief either by voluntary settlement or by pursuing a petition for such relief before the Merit Systems Protection Board.