by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona County’s veterans service officers recently settled a lawsuit with their employer and won most of the concessions they wanted.
Winona County Veterans Service Officer Jerry Obieglo and Assistant Veterans Service Officer John Heaser sued Winona County and Winona County Administrator Ken Fritz last year. The lawsuit argued that under state law, the Veterans Service Office (VSO) should be a separate department answering directly to the County Board. Like many Minnesota counties, Winona County’s VSO was a subsection of the Community Services Department. The lawsuit also claimed the county had unfairly prevented Heaser and Obieglo from volunteering at veteran-related events and that the county retaliated against them for raising concerns about those issues with local veterans groups. In particular, county administrative staff told Obieglo he could not volunteer his time at an event to provide advice to homeless veterans.
The county had argued that state law does not require the VSO to be a separate department and that the Fair Labor Standards Act — in an effort to protect employees from being pressured to work without pay — prohibits employers from allowing employees to volunteer work that is similar or identical to their paid jobs. However, in a settlement reached last month, county leaders agreed to separate the VSO from the Community Services Department and allow Obieglo and Heaser to attend veteran-related events, with guidelines for what qualifies as work the county must pay them for and what qualifies as volunteerism. The county’s insurance provider will pay some of the Obieglo and Heaser’s legal fees, but the county will not pay any other damages or compensation.
“There were differences of opinion on the law, but in the end, we think the veteran service officers do a great job and we wanted to find some way to bridge that gap,” Fritz stated. As for the limits on volunteerism, Fritz explained, “The goal of that is to protect employees from employers … This is kind of a weird situation because it kind of works the opposite way.” The employees wanted to volunteer, and their employer was not letting them. Now, Obieglo and Heaser will be free to volunteer at veteran-related events, but there will be some guidelines about what constitutes as paid work, Fritz explained. “Cooking fish at a fish fry is not work. Spending a half hour talking to a veteran about benefits, that’s work. Providing a 15-minute update at a veteran service agency about the VSO, that’s work. Spending an hour afterwards networking with people, that’s not work,” he explained.
“That’s basically the main thing — is to be able to do that outreach and meet veterans,” Heaser said of what the settlement does for him and his work. “We’re big on outreach: going out into the community and getting to know veterans. We have a lot of vets in the community who didn’t serve overseas, and they don’t think of themselves as veterans. They don’t know they’re entitled to anything.” By meeting veterans where they are — at public events after normal business hours — Heaser said he and Obieglo are able to make a lot more connections with people who could benefits from veteran assistance programs. “It’s always been about being able to serve the populace. It’s not about being right,” Heaser said of the lawsuit.
“I shouldn’t be told I could be fired if I volunteer. I shouldn’t be told that,” Obieglo said. “If you’re any kind of a veteran service officer, you’re never off the clock. If someone’s in crisis, why would I say, ‘No, call me tomorrow.” Why would I say that? There’s no reason to say that if you’re truly passionate about your job,” he added.
Under the new organizational system, Fritz said the VSO will not technically be its own department, but will report directly to him, the county administrator. Previously, Obieglo had reported to the community services director and Heaser had reported to the community services support staff supervisor. Giving them two different bosses on the old structure was a little disjointed, Fritz acknowledged.
Asked why reporting to the community services director was a bad thing, Obieglo responded, “It depends on who’s in charge. When I worked with Beth [Wilms], everything was a go. She started every meeting and ended every meeting with, ‘What can I do as your supervisor to help you do your job better?’” More recently, Obieglo said, he was not getting that kind of support. He added that Fritz has been very supportive since the settlement.
Asked if the county would benefit from having a community services executive manage the veterans services office, Fritz responded, “No, veterans services is unique.” The other welfare programs administered by the Community Services Department are governed by state agencies, Fritz noted. “The VSO comes from the [the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)] and the state portions of the VA. So it’s a totally different track.” Fritz added that the Community Services Department and the VSO would still work closely together.
As part of its building consolidation project, the county recent moved the VSO to a new, more distinct office at 225 West Second Street in Winona. Previously it was co-located in the Community Services Department’s building next door.