By Ryan Yousefi
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By Michael E. Miller
By Kyle Munzenrieder
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This is Tence Wolfe's story in its most succinct form:
A trusted employee of the Dade County Clerk's Office since 1989, Wolfe worked on the seventh floor of the Metro-Dade Justice Building, in the criminal courts division. Her job was fairly straightforward -- when attorneys filed documents in a criminal case, she made sure the paperwork got to the right files; and when a member of the public wanted to examine a particular case, she would help. In March 1993, she became a union shop steward for Local 1363 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents less than one-third of the 1375 workers in the clerk's office.
Unlike past shop stewards, who often approached the job with little enthusiasm, Wolfe felt honored to represent her co-workers, and was diligent in recruiting new members and vigilant in thwarting several attempts by her supervisors to violate terms of their employment contract. In response, she claims, her supervisors retaliated against her, harassed her with menial job assignments, and critically scrutinized the most minute details of her performance. "The county did not want to have an active union steward," Wolfe says, "and it became their goal to get rid of me."
Many of her fellow employees agreed with Wolfe's assessment. In fact, 61 of them signed a petition attesting to their belief she was being discriminated against because she had spoken up for their rights. But when she asked her own union to come to her defense, AFSCME officials refused. Instead, Wolfe contends, they decided to sacrifice her rather than cause more friction with county management. Wolfe also believes another factor contributed to the union's lack of support: Local 1363 president Leon Fuller was angry
with her because she had backed his opponent in recent elections.
In December of last year, Wolfe filed two complaints with the Public Employees Relations Commission in Tallahassee, the independent state agency responsible for resolving conflicts between government workers and management, as well as between employees and their unions. Wolfe's complaints were aimed at the county clerk's office and AFSCME Local 1363.
Less than three months later she was fired by the county.
That is the outline of Tence Wolfe's story. But it is a wholly inadequate rendition of the events of the past year, a chronology that could inspire romantic visions of the determined underdog, armed with nothing but the truth and an abiding faith in justice, prevailing against overwhelming odds. Stories like that can lift the human spirit and fill ordinary people with hope.
This, however, is not going to be one of those stories.
Tence Wolfe joined the clerk's office in 1989. She was a 45-year-old married mother, and hadn't worked in the five years since she left her job as a research librarian at a local bank. Now her son was in college, and the modest salary from her position at the clerk's office (starting pay was less than $18,000 per year) would help offset the cost of his schooling.
According to the annual evaluations in her personnel file, Wolfe was a valued employee. In May 1990, supervisor Vivian Rogers wrote, "Ms. Wolfe works effectively with co-workers, the public, other departmental persons, outside agencies, and immediate supervisor. She demonstrates excellent interpersonal skills when dealing with people. She is a team player and often suggests ideas for improvement. She is well-liked and respected by her co-workers. Ms. Wolfe accepts new assignments willingly and she readily accepts advice and counseling in a positive manner."
In May 1991, Rogers wrote, "She handles complicated situations very well. She has received commendations regarding her professional attitude and good service."
In May 1992, Bibiana Pavon, who had replaced Rogers as Wolfe's supervisor, again praised her: "Tence does an excellent job maintaining accuracy in her work product. She possesses a great deal of knowledge, which enables her to complete her work effectively. Tence demonstrates a good working relationship with her co-workers and superiors. When called upon for assistance, she's cooperative and polite at all times. Tence has proven to be a team player by working matters of concern within her area."
As a sign of the faith in her abilities, Wolfe's superiors selected her to represent the clerk's office in a recruitment booth at the Dade County Youth Fair. She was even lauded in the courthouse newsletter. "Meet Tence Wolfe," a 1991 article stated, "an asset to all that come in contact with her."
The principal criticism raised in all three yearly evaluations was the number of days Wolfe missed work because of illness. Initially, she explains, the absences were the result of arthritis, which began to flare up in 1989. Crippling pain in her knees and feet would leave her unable to walk and forced her to miss work for days at a time. And like many other Dade County residents, she also missed work after Hurricane Andrew destroyed her West Kendall home.
Then, in the fall of 1992, she began regularly succumbing to bouts of the flu. "I would get these horrible upper-respiratory colds," she recalls. Finally doctors discovered the problem: Wolfe suffered from a hyperthyroid condition that made her susceptible to colds and influenza. She took an unpaid medical leave of absence from the county in December 1992, and when she returned to work at the end of January 1993, she says she was determined to stay healthy.