City of Pittsburgh faces three legal cases stemming from attempt to cut six longtime employees from the 2018 budget

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People walking in front of the city county building downtown Pittsburgh.

A view of the City-County Building in downtown Pittsburgh. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

When Elena Shklyar immigrated to the United States, she came as a Jewish refugee from then Soviet Ukraine.

She arrived in 1989 and set about building a new life for herself. She learned English and new skills in IT development. Later, she got married and in 1995, became a U.S. citizen. In 2000, she landed a full-time job as a developer with the City of Pittsburgh.

For 17 years, it was a steady, well-paying job. Until fall 2017. One day that September, Shklyar’s supervisor told her she’d be out of a job come Dec. 31. She agreed to take a lower-paying position in another department in January 2018 but was terminated a month later, according to a lawsuit she filed in federal court.

As it turns out, she wasn’t alone. Five other longtime, mid-level city employees were informed their positions were set to be eliminated from the 2018 budget. According to legal documents and sources, the employees’ respective supervisors called them in for meetings in September 2017 to tell them they wouldn’t have jobs in the new year and asked them to not tell anyone.

After putting up a fight, four of those six employees were able to keep jobs with the city, though only three still work there. Now, the city is facing a lawsuit from Shklyar and two discrimination complaints from two of the other employees who allege that officials discriminated against them and tried to unlawfully fire them.

Shklyar alleges her supervisors in the city’s Department of Innovation & Performance [I&P] discriminated against her because she’s from Ukraine and has a heavy accent.

Shklyar, who has a serious respiratory allergy, also alleges that other city officials assigned her to work in a dusty warehouse that caused her to have severe allergic reactions. When the city wasn’t willing to accommodate her allergy after demoting her, Shklyar was terminated, according to a federal lawsuit she filed in November.

Some of the six employees allege they were targeted not because they performed poorly but because they were disliked or failed to curry favor with the right people. According to legal filings and five current and former city employees with knowledge of the situation, the proposed firings were political, not professional. Councilwoman Darlene Harris, who was aware of the situation when it occurred, agreed.

“I remember this was politically motivated because there were other positions they wanted to bring in,” Harris said in a December interview.

Generally, the city’s civil service rules, which govern employees not represented by a union, say that the city is allowed to eliminate positions whenever it wants but that it has to either ask older employees to retire early or ask the newest employees to leave before others.

Sam Ashbaugh, the city's then-chief financial officer, speaks during a city council budget hearing in November 2017. (Screen grab via City Channel Pittsburgh)

The three cases, along with sources with direct knowledge, allege that several department directors aided Sam Ashbaugh, the city’s then-chief financial officer, in drawing up a list of the six employees they wanted to get rid of and tried to fire them by eliminating their positions.

The sources requested anonymity because they feared retaliation from the city or weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

“People were shuffled around to make room for people who align with Peduto,” one source said. “They were moved around for someone else. [Peduto] certainly wants to be surrounded by his people.”

While the plan had mixed success — two of the six ended up being laid off or quit their jobs and another retired six months later — it resulted in three legal complaints, one in federal court and two with the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations [PCHR], a local law enforcement agency that hears employment and other discrimination complaints.

Ashbaugh declined to answer questions for this story, stating that he no longer works for the city and was not authorized to speak to the media.

“I suggest you communicate directly with [city spokesperson] Tim McNulty and the City of Pittsburgh and do not contact me any further regarding this or any other matter,” Ashbaugh wrote in an email.

Ashbaugh left his post in the city for a job with Carnegie Mellon University in September 2018.

McNulty declined to make city officials available for interviews and declined to comment on the legal complaints. Megan Stanley, the deputy director of the PCHR, declined to answer questions about the two complaints.

Mayor Bill Peduto speaks to the media on Nov. 13, 2018 after Amazon announced that the city wasn't selected for its HQ2. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

In Shklyar’s federal case, filed in Western Pennsylvania District Court, she alleges the city discriminated against her because of her nationality and accent and by not making accommodations for a respiratory disability. Shklyar declined to comment and referred questions to her attorney. Nicole Daller, who represents Shklyar, also declined to comment.

In the first PCHR case, Caroline Greco, a financial supervisor who’s worked for the city since 1982, alleges the city discriminated against her because of both her age and gender. She alleges in her complaint that she was forced to train younger men who then replaced her while she was moved to different positions. Greco declined to comment for this story.

In the second PCHR case, Kathleen Butter, who currently works in the Department of Parks and Recreation, alleges that the city discriminated against her because of her age. She says that a younger man with less experience than her was promoted to a position she applied for and was qualified for. Butter declined to comment, and referred questions to her attorney. Alec Wright, an employee rights attorney representing Butter, declined to comment.

In filings, the city denied the allegations in both PCHR cases.

The city hasn’t formally responded to Shklyar’s lawsuit in court yet. In both PCHR cases, the Commission on Human relations has one year — until the end of February — to reach what’s called a “conciliation agreement.” After that point, both women would have the option of hiring private lawyers and suing the city in a higher court. According to her lawsuit, Shklyar also has an ongoing PCHR complaint.

George Dougherty, a professor with the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said discrimination cases like the three filed are pretty rare for cities to encounter and can be an uphill battle for employees to win. Cities like Pittsburgh have policies and resources for aggrieved employees, he said, which helps make legal complaints uncommon. And, he added, it’s often easier to prove patterns of discrimination in a workplace rather than individual cases.

On top of that, he said, the mayor and his administration have limited authority because budgets — and any cut positions — ultimately have to be passed by city council. If the administration can make a good legal case for why the cuts were necessary, he said, arguing against that could prove difficult.

“Cities can make strategic decisions that have negative impacts for individual employees but are better for the city in the long run,” he said. “And making those decisions aren’t necessarily illegal or wrong.”

Sources who were aware of the attempted firings in fall 2017 said it's not clear what specifically the Peduto administration wanted to use the funds from the cut positions for. They said the money ultimately went to several things, including increased funding for the Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections [PLI] and Department of Mobility and Infrastructure which were priorities of the administration at the time.

Part of Peduto’s campaign platform when he first ran in 2013 was reforming PLI, then called the Bureau of Building Inspection. In a 2013 campaign statement, Peduto called the department “woefully understaffed” and promised to bolster it with technology and new talent.

Because the city was still under the state’s Act 47 and deemed financially distressed, the only way the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority would approve the city’s budget was if changes were neutral, meaning the city had to balance all additions with cuts. Another factor in the administration’s decision to make the cuts, sources said, was keeping an even number of total city employees — hiring for new positions had to be offset by eliminating others. The sources said Peduto’s priorities led Ashbaugh to send an email to the city’s department heads instructing them to find positions to cut from the budget.

A source added that Ashbaugh was known to talk openly about individual employees he disliked so the department heads likely knew who he favored and who he didn’t.

Together, the six employees earned $415,674 in 2017, according to city data. McNulty said he didn’t know if the administration was able to add new inspectors or send additional funds to the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure.

“Certain people definitely had targets on their backs, though, and directors knew who they were,” the source wrote. “Sam put the list together based on emails he received from directors.”

“Sam may have had predispositions,” another source said.

At a budget hearing with Pittsburgh City Council on Nov. 28, 2017, Harris confronted Ashbaugh about the employees who, as she said, were “just written out of the budget.”

“So the way we work around here now, we just wipe people out of the budget and don’t tell them until they see the budget that they’re gone? Even if they’re here 20 to 35 years or so, they just wipe them right out?” Harris asked Ashbaugh at the council table. “I wouldn’t treat an animal that way let alone a human being. It’s very, very sad.”

Ashbaugh didn’t directly answer some of Harris’ questions at the council meeting but said the Office of Management and Budget [OMB] had asked departments to assess their “needs,” including “positions or functions.” If a department had positions it didn’t need, Ashbaugh said, it should recommend the city cut those positions from the budget.

“...Directors gave us recommendations, and we implemented those as part of the budget process,” Ashbaugh told Harris at the council table.

Earlier in the meeting, Ashbaugh said OMB didn’t have the power to cut positions from the budget.

“When it comes to personnel, those decisions about positions to change, alter, add or delete come from the department directors themselves,” he said at the time. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the power to tell departments what to do or make decisions. We rely on them to run their operations.”

Harris referred to the civil service rules that govern how the city treats its non-unionized employees, highlighting the rule that the least-senior employees should be let go before more senior ones. “You have to go to the bottom of the list or the city gets lawsuits,” Harris said at the meeting.  

After the list of six employees was put together, each got called into a meeting with their department director and someone from the city’s personnel office. They were told they had three months left with the city. A few of the employees had political connections they leveraged to keep their positions. Greco wrote in her complaint that she was able to meet with Peduto’s then-chief of staff, Kevin Acklin, and ask for her job back. Acklin wasn’t aware of the situation, a source said, and helped Greco have her position added back into the budget. In an email, Acklin declined to answer questions but confirmed he met with Greco and the other five employees.

“At the Mayor’s request, I believe that the Solicitor and I met with each of the affected employees to make sure they were treated with respect, as we would with any city employee regarding personnel matters,” he wrote.

Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Darlene Harris speaks at a mayoral debate in Brookline on May 2, 2017. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Sources said Harris, through her position on city council, was also able to help restore some of the people to positions with the city.

In Shklyar’s case, though, her work situation had become tenuous before her name landed on any list. As she alleges in her lawsuit, her supervisor in I&P, an assistant director named Heidi Norman, discriminated against her and “commented to...co-workers that she had difficulty understanding Ms. Shklyar’s English.” On one occasion, the lawsuit says, Norman commented that she preferred a male employee over Shklyar because “at least we can understand him.”  

PublicSource requested comment from Norman and other employees through the mayor's spokesman but was not granted interviews.

At one point in 2017, Shklyar was asked to fill in for administrative employees while they were on their lunch breaks, which included answering phone calls. That humiliated Shklyar because English isn’t her primary language, according to the lawsuit, but she did the administrative work anyway. Then, after Shklyar was informed in September that her position was being written out of the budget, she sought to find a job elsewhere in the city and was placed in the Department of Public Works in an accounting role. Shklyar has a background in business and accounting as well as information technology.

The lawsuit quotes comments made at a city council meeting by Lee Haller, the former director of I&P, who said in 2017 that he chose to eliminate Shklyar’s position because he needed “to have the best staff in place to meet all the responsibilities on our plate.” According to the lawsuit, Haller said Shklyar’s termination was “not requested by the Office of Management & Budget.” Haller left the city in August 2018 for a position at a Pittsburgh-based startup company called Jetpack Workflow. Haller didn’t respond to requests to comment for this story.

According to the lawsuit, Shklyar was told she’d be working in an office inside of a warehouse and wouldn’t be exposed to the dust in the warehouse air. Shklyar suffers from allergies that cause her to have serious reactions to dust, the lawsuit says. After having an allergic reaction to the dust in the Public Works warehouse, Shklyar applied for another job with the city, back in I&P. The city told her she was qualified for the job but she didn’t get it. Shklyar’s doctor told her she shouldn’t return to work in the warehouse unless conditions changed. The city wasn’t willing to make changes to the warehouse to accommodate Shklyar, according to the lawsuit. She was terminated on Feb. 1.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

Both the lawsuit and Harris noted that the city’s termination of Shklyar was in direct opposition to Peduto and other officials’ statements that the city is “welcoming” and supportive of immigrants.

“You can’t stand there and say, ‘I’m for immigrants’... and not help or deal with the problems, especially right at your front door,” Harris said. “You have to accomodate people, especially if they have an issue.”

In Greco’s case, she alleges that Karina Ricks, the director of the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure [DOMI], told her in March 2017 that the city would be implementing new software that would eliminate the need for finance positions like hers in the department. Greco then alleges that in May and August 2017 the city hired two “fiscal employees” and that she was tasked with training one of them. Both men are younger than Greco and she has 30-plus years of experience more than they do, her complaint says. Then, in September, Greco alleges that Mike Gable, the director of the Department of Public Works, told her that her position as fiscal supervisor was being eliminated and that the man she trained would be replacing her. Greco alleges that a human resources employee handed her a list of other positions she could apply for. Greco said she had to “seek out multiple individuals,” including Acklin, to keep her job. In its response, the city denied Greco’s claim that she was being let go so a younger man could take her place. They also denied her characterization of what Ricks said, that DOMI would introduce new software that could eliminate positions like Greco’s.

“This would be the fifth time since I started with the city that my position has been redlined, eliminated or demoted,” she says in the complaint. “Since 1993 there has been a pattern of age and sex discrimination.”

In Butter’s case, she alleges that a younger man with less experience than her was given a job she applied for multiple times. In July 2017, Butter was a pension administrator for the city. At that time, she wrote in her complaint, she applied to become the assistant director of the city’s finance department. She didn’t get the job, she said in the complaint, and was then told in September that her position was being eliminated from the budget. Several days later, Butter again applied for the job of assistant director of finance but didn’t get the job. In December, the city informed her she was being demoted to a job that paid $3,000 less per year than her current position. She started in that job January 2018.

Butter wrote that she later learned that a man named Edward Barca, who was 27 at the time, was given the position of assistant director of finance. Butter is 52. She wrote that Barca had only been employed by the city for two years and that she had been there since 2001. Butter added that she has a total of 29 years of experience working in government finance and administration. Barca didn’t respond to several messages and voicemails requesting comment.

According to the complaint, Butter characterized the reality of her career trajectory with the city: “I am now in a less desirable position in the terms, conditions and privileges of my employment with [the city], with less compensation.”

This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.

J. Dale Shoemaker is PublicSource's government and data reporter. You can reach him at 412-515-0060 or by email at dale@publicsource.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @JDale_Shoemaker. He can be reached securely via PGP: bit.ly/2ig07qL

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