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For county workers, job security is at the whim of the politicians September 20, 2008

Posted by Bahadir Sahin in English, Haber (News).
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Neil Johnson thought he had a secure job, having spent 14 years working for Pittsburg County District 3.

So did Steve Tripp, who had given 22 years of public service as a full-time District 3 employee, and another two years as a part-time employee before that.

They found out differently on Sept. 2, the day after Labor Day, when Donald Mathis took office as the newly-elected District 3 commissioner.

They both reported to work as usual that day — but the day turned out to be far from routine.

Both men said when they went in to talk to Mathis, they were told they no longer had a job “for the good of the county.”

Johnson told the News-Capital he felt he had already put in years of service for the good of the county.

“I did everything I could for the county. I worked wherever they needed me,” said Johnson.

While some longtime employees with years of experience in District 3 lost their jobs when Mathis took office, he hired a new employee — Archie Rogers, the brother of Pittsburg County District 1 Commissioner Gene Rogers.

Before he won the District 3 office, Mathis had been Gene Rogers’ road foreman.

Johnson, 46, said he had done a variety of jobs during his 14 years with District 3.

He said he did everything from cut brush, to help keep books and work with the Geographical Information System to keep track of county “facilities” — which means everything from signs to bridges.

Johnson said he had been hired in 1994 by then-District 3 County Commissioner Oben Weeks. When Weeks later didn’t seek re-election and retired, Johnson continued to work for the new District 3 Commissioner Randy Crone.

Johnson said he never had any problems while working with Weeks or Crone.

However, Crone retired last April in the middle of his term, setting up the special election which Mathis won during a runoff election with Trent Myers.

Now, Johnson and Tripp are among the jobless.

“Why should I get caught up in politics? I worked hard for the county for 14 years,” Johnson said.

“They took my job. I don’t have insurance now. I was going to spend a career with the county.”

He wonders what he’s going to do for work.

“I don’t really want to leave this area,”Johnson said.

“I feel devastated and I know the other guys do too.”

Tripp, 46, and his son, Wade Tripp, 25, both worked for District 3 and both lost their job on the same day that Johnson did.

“I’ve been there since 1986 full-time,” said Steve Tripp, who also had worked for years with Weeks and Crone before losing his job on the first day Mathis took office.

“The past few years, I’ve been a mechanic’s helper,” Tripp said. “I’ve ran back-hoes, chippers, graders. I’ve done anything they’ve asked me to do.”

He still remembers how he felt when he learned he had lost his job.

“It kind of makes you feel like you’re nothing — you let your whole family down,” he said.

“I lost the eye, dental and health insurance.”

Tripp said he still had 96 days of unused sick leave he had never taken — and that’s even with donating some of his sick leave to other employees who he felt needed it more.

“I gave away a bunch to people who needed it,” he said. “Now I’ve got 96 days I’m going to lose.”

The News-Capital had asked Mathis after he took office why he did not rehire the five workers. All of the employees had been advised to fill out new job applications.

“It’s for the betterment of the county,” Mathis had said.

He said he wanted to make five slots to reduce the number of employees in District 3 to help cut the payroll.

“We’re trying to do this right,” Mathis said.

Stanley Elms, 62, had also been among the District 3 employees who lost their jobs on the day Mathis took office. He said he had been worked for District 3 for four years.

Elms had said he felt “pretty devastated” after losing his job.

“I’ve tried to be an excellent employee,” Elms said. adding that he had sick leave and annual leave he had not used at the time he lost his job.

Classified state employees and school teachers have merit protection for their jobs. Protections are also in place for many city employees.

Trish Frazier, the policy and research director for the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, recently noted that classified state employees and school teachers have merit protection.

“But I don’t know of any law like that for county employees,” she said.

County officials may have the right to hire who they want to work for them in many cases, she said.

“But there’s a difference between rights and what’s right,” she said.

Steve Tripp said he feels like the entire matter is “a bad deal.”

“We work hard for the county and put our lives on the line, out on the road, just like the state boys do,” he said.

“There ought to be some protection.”

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