Sunday, Aug. 2, 2009 | 2 a.m.
A year ago, Jim Richardson was piloting the state plane, ferrying elected officials and senior management between Carson City, Las Vegas and the rural counties in the state’s Cessna Citation.
Then he found himself grounded, demoted to a job carrying 120-pound bags of rocks and earning about half of his pilot’s salary.
The employment saga of Richardson is a messy case of employee said/employer said. And it promises to drag on through the court system, possibly for years.
For the union representing state employees, it’s Exhibit A for the argument that state government workers need better protections against management.
During the past legislative session, the union, backed by Democratic lawmakers, pushed through a bill that would have given employees the right to collectively bargain on some workplace issues, such as grievances with management and unfair firings. It would not have allowed them to bargain over pay raises or other economic issues, such as benefits, which the Legislature sets.
Gov. Jim Gibbons vetoed the bill, and lawmakers did not have time to attempt to override it. But the issue is sure to come back in 2011, during the next regular session. And in making the case for why state workers need the power to bargain collectively, proponents will surely point to Richardson.
In January 2008, he went to his boss, the head of the Nevada Transportation Department, Susan Martinovich, with a list of allegations against the state’s then-chief pilot, Gary Phillips. Richardson alleged that Phillips:
• Almost ran out of fuel on more than one occasion, including while flying with Gibbons.
• Took off while the plane was overweight.
• Allowed his 14-year-old son to fly the plane.
The Transportation Department says it investigated the complaints but could find no evidence that the plane had almost run out of fuel or taken off overweight. Phillips was later demoted, from chief pilot to pilot, though department officials say they cannot explain the reason because it’s a personnel matter.
Richardson later got into trouble after he failed to immediately report that an intern, while flying the plane, had over-revved an engine. He waited a day before informing Phillips.
Punishment’s severity queried
He was fired for the lapse. But he claimed his firing was retribution for blowing the whistle on safety violations. He also says now that he believes he was singled out because he’s a member of the state union.
He appealed his firing to a state hearing officer.
Richardson admitted he made a mistake in not immediately reporting the over-revving. He received a letter from the Federal Aviation Administration after it did an investigation, its lightest form of punishment.
But he argued that his punishment by the state was much more severe than that meted out to Phillips. The status of an FAA investigation into the allegations against Phillips was not available on Friday.
The Transportation Department, however, argued that Richardson was fired only for the safety violation, and Martinovich testified that she didn’t want Richardson flying the plane again.
The hearing officer, Bill Kockenmeister, sided with Richardson. Phillips, he ruled, had committed much more serious offenses — the ruling said there was “substantial, reliable and probative evidence” — and ordered the department rehire Richardson.
The department has appealed to district court, where the case is now.
Meanwhile, Richardson was rehired in June and assigned to the state’s aggregate lab, where he earned $17 an hour. As a department pilot he had been paid about $32 an hour.
Richardson received back pay, though at the lower rate.
“I was basically hauling 120 pound bags of rock,” Richardson said in an interview last week. “I physically couldn’t do it.”
He lasted for only a matter of hours before he was transferred to an engineering technician job, a job he said he’s not qualified for. His pay remains $17 an hour.
“It’s something I’ve no idea what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m trying to learn the job the best that I can.”
Kockenmeister issued another order, saying that Richardson must be placed in a pilot’s position. But the Transportation Department obtained a stay until the case is ruled on in District Court.
Litigation is costly route
Dennis Mallory, head of the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the state needs better rules to prevent these cases from dragging on. The state is spending unnecessary time and money on the litigation, and will be forced to pay Richardson higher back pay, with interest, for services the taxpayers aren’t getting, he said.
Transportation Department spokesman Scott Magruder denied that Richardson was fired for his union affiliation. “This absolutely had nothing to do with his union membership,” he said. “It had to do with the incident that occurred. I can say that unequivocally.”
Magruder added that both pilot positions funded by the Legislature had been filled before the administrative hearing officer’s order to rehire Richardson came down.
Jeff Blanck, a Reno attorney representing Richardson, said he expects the case will ultimately be resolved by the Nevada Supreme Court, a time-consuming proposition.
“Right now, on average, we’re talking about two years for the Supreme Court to render a decision,” Blanck said. “That’s when it comes back to who’s got the time and the money. It’s real tough on the employees.”
He said there are a number of cases in which union members have been harshly punished.
“The state waits for them to step on a crack, and then goes after them,” he said. “For minor infractions, union members get nailed. Other nonunion employees have larger infractions without repercussions.”
Gibbons won’t comment on the case, but stands by the grievance process, according to his spokesman, Dan Burns.
“The governor doesn’t judge the validity of the system in place right now based on one or two cases,” Burns said.
Richardson, meanwhile, said he’s still showing up to work.