The Tipton County E-911 director is under investigation after allegations were made she’d not only discouraged employees from getting vaccinated against COVID but threatened “pushback” if they did.
On Sept. 20 the board voted to investigate the claims after county executive Jeff Huffman voiced concerns about the alleged statements.
“It’s my understanding, and I’ve talked to some of the employees out there, that the director was discouraging vaccination. And I don’t think whether it’s the director or the department head or anyone else needs to be discouraging folks from getting a vaccination, especially if they’re in close quarters like a dispatcher is.”
Huffman went on to say he believes it’s up to each individual to decide for themselves whether or not they’ll get vaccinated but he was concerned about what employees had told him.
“After talking to folks, apparently there was some concern about why they weren’t getting vaccinated and some pushback if they did. I think that’s something probably the board needs to look at and talk to folks. After talking to some of the employees down there I’m convinced [director] Renée [Downing] was not encouraging folks to get vaccinated and was, in fact, discouraging folks and then we end up with this hotspot of COVID and this thing took off from there.”
Huffman told the board of directors they needed to look into the complaints from employees.
“It’s one thing to leave it up to the employee, but if you’ve got a department head or official who’s actively discouraging folks from getting vaccinated that’s a problem and we have to address that.”
Downing and at least two employees deny these statements were made. One employee who chose to be vaccinated said they didn’t remember ever hearing Downing talk about the vaccine, much less make threats about it, and they haven’t received any “pushback” whatsoever.
In August, as the COVID variant Delta surged through the MidSouth, several dispatchers were diagnosed with COVID and others had to quarantine. It left central dispatch with only one dispatcher per shift and the Telecommunicator Emergency Response Taskforce had to assist Tipton County by supplementing the workforce until everyone could return.
“This fiasco we just went through with the dispatching system almost got to the point where we couldn’t answer the phone,” Huffman said. “We’re gonna have to come up with a solution to that so that if it happens again we’re ready. And I want to talk about, specifically, trying to keep our folks safe down there.”
A dispatcher who attended the Sept. 20 meeting interrupted Huffman to defend Downing.
“I work down there and I never heard Renée say that at all, and I’m not her assistant or anything like that, just her employee,” she said. “If some are telling you, there’s either some untruth in a room that is recorded or just some falsity that they’re leveling against her. That’s not true. Renée encouraged everybody to make their own decision and said that out openly, amongst everybody in the room, on different shifts. There was never any discouragement on her part to the vaccine.”
Huffman maintained several people had made the allegations and stressed the importance of safety to the public.
“That can’t happen, so that needs to be looked into. You have to make the decision about it, but if it were any of these other offices we could have a serious problem, more serious than we had at dispatch because they’re involved and they see the public more often than not.”
Downing agreed an investigation should be conducted.
“I recommend that y’all go talk to every one of them,” she said during the Sept. 20 meeting. I’ve never told them not to do that. I told them it was their decision, but I do recommend that you talk to each and every one of them.”
At a special called meeting on Monday, Oct. 4, the board decided to use their attorney’s office to investigate the claims instead of using the personnel committee or a third party investigator.
E-911 board attorney Ted Yeiser told the members the report would be made public and, should litigation result, those who investigated could potentially become witnesses.
It will cost approximately $5,000 to $6,500 to complete the investigation, which will take place over the course of several days.
They will looking into whether or not Downing made direct or indirect comments or created an atmosphere that was discouraging dispatchers from getting vaccinated.
“I think in light of what’s gone on … if comments were made that speaks negatively towards getting the vaccine then that should not be in the workplace,” said James Sneed.
The board also wants to know whether or not COVID protocols were followed and what recommendations the firm has if the investigation shows policies or expectations of departments heads were violated.
“That’s how we got down to just one dispatcher,” Sneed said. “It will be interesting to see that sequence of events … were things followed or not that could have prevented us from getting to that point? I’m not sure if that’s still in scope, but at the same time it was a serious event.”
There was also a recent OSHA complaint in which it was alleged quarantine guidelines were not followed, however that complaint has been closed and OSHA was satisfied the guidelines were followed.