October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a fitting time to focus on what has transpired in the confrontation between state employee Heather Burke and Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration.
It’s a story of a bureaucracy that can’t get out of its own way long enough to do what’s right.
Burke, 41, worked on computer programs in a bureau of the state General Services Department for two and a half years. Her relationship with her direct boss, Karen Baltzley, soured after Burke filed whistleblower and harassment complaints.
Then Burke got sick, and her professional life unraveled for no good reason. Here’s what happened.
Doctors diagnosed Burke with breast cancer, and she eventually went on medical leave. She was receiving radiation treatments when Ed Burckle, Cabinet secretary of the state General Services Department, sent her an email on Aug. 31 saying she would be fired, effective the next day.
“Because you are unable to work,” Burckle wrote, his department intended to dismiss Burke. Burckle gave her 11 days to challenge his decision to fire her.
Burke called me. She said her breast cancer was being used by the state as a pretext to take away her job. She wondered if I would write about her case. I asked for her medical records and employment history, which she turned over to me.
I wrote a column about Burke, Baltzley and Burckle that appeared in the Sept. 7 edition of The New Mexican. Burke then contested her firing. She provided Burckle with a letter from her physician saying she was able to return to her $71,000-a-year job. Burke says neither Burckle nor anybody else on his management team had ever asked if she was healthy enough to go back to work before telling her that she would be dismissed.
After receiving the doctor’s statement, Burckle and his staff dawdled for several days. They also required Burke’s busy oncologist to fill out another form specifying how much lifting she could do, if she returned to work.
Burckle on Sept. 28 rescinded his plan to fire Burke. But her case was far from over.
That same day, the human resources director sent Burke a letter notifying her that she was being suspended for 30 days.
This was Burke’s punishment for an old infraction. She admits she once left a computer password unprotected. She also says other workers committed worse security breaches with no punishment at all.
I sent a handful of questions to Cabinet Secretary Burckle on Thursday about Burke’s firing being withdrawn and a 30-day suspension being imposed instead, explaining that I was working on a follow-up column. He didn’t respond to any of my questions.
But on Friday, his staff notified Burke’s labor union that she could return to work Monday, Oct. 5, provided that she dropped two complaints against the department that she’d filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Burckle’s department also wanted her to accept a five-day suspension instead of the original 30 days.
Burke rejected the offer.
She had already notified the department that she no longer would accept pay funded by co-workers who had donated their sick leave to her. “I can’t take donated leave when I’m capable of working,” Burke said.
That was a gutsy decision by someone now without a paycheck who faces a $900 monthly bill for medical coverage, lost when the bosses suspended her.
Though Burckle ignored my questions about the case, a state publicist, Estevan Lujan sent me a statement: “Contrary to your false claims, Ms. Burke continues to work for the General Services Department and was never fired.”
Lujan previously had told me that state law prevented department supervisors from commenting on Burke’s case, other than to say her claims of retaliation were false. Yet it appeared that at least one of Burke’s supervisors had discussed her case at length outside the workplace.
My first column on Burke elicited numerous comments. Five people posted statements under the column on The New Mexican’s website. The only one criticizing Burke was from a Jason Baltzley, the same name as the grown son of Burke’s direct supervisor, Karen Baltzley. Jason Baltzley wrote: “The fact that anyone would support this woman after the years of pure hell she has put everyone in that dept. through is sheer insanity!”
Lujan dismissed Jason Baltzley’s comment as the opinion of “a non-state employee.” He ignored my question about whether supervisors asked Karen Baltzley if she had breached state rules by discussing personnel matters with relatives. Karen Baltzley did not respond to a request for comment.
Burke says her boss wanted to push her out and that breast cancer became the excuse to get rid of her. If that was the state’s strategy, it failed.
Burckle’s new approach should be to welcome Burke back to work and declare it a victory for fair play. That beats the alternative of squandering more time and taxpayer money on case that gets worse for the state by the day.