Former and current Allegheny County emergency dispatch center employees said tensions there sometimes run high, but opinions were mixed about working conditions in the Point Breeze facility that handles about 1.3 million calls a year with a staff of about 230.
Three 911 dispatchers sued the county this week alleging supervisors berated them with racial slurs, physical threats and uneven disciplinary measures, promoting a hostile workplace.
“You hear a lot of complaints. Everyone has gripes,” said Tom Troyan, 50, of Sharpsburg, the chief shop union steward at the dispatch center. That is to be expected, he said, in a stressful job that can shift from dull to serious in a matter of seconds, he said. He declined to comment on the lawsuits but said hostility between dispatchers and managers varies. He said he tries to keep both sides talking, and managers listen.
Former dispatchers Kelli Rodriguez and Ruby Helvy, and Dapree Thompson, who still works at the call center, alleged sexual harassment and race- and gender-based discrimination from managers and supervisors in separate lawsuits filed on Wednesday.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s office declined to comment. No one in the county’s law department would comment.
“It was anything but a hostile environment,” said Rick Mancuso, 66, of Beechview, who stopped working at the dispatch center in 2009.
“People are always looking for easy money,” he said of the lawsuits.
He said management went out of its way to reduce stress and tension among dispatchers. When times were slow, dispatchers had fun. When it was chaos, everyone worked together to get the job done, he said.
“There is a culture of discrimination and hostility,” said Joseph D. Pometto, an attorney at Kramer, Manes & Associates, Downtown, who represents the three women in separate lawsuits. “Creating this type of environment for the workers isn’t going to allow them to perform their job 100 percent.”
In a news release, Pometto said supervisors used the N-word, engaged in sexual harassment, yelled insults loud enough that a 911 caller speaking with Rodriguez could hear and imposed disciplinary measures that were harsher than those given to non-minorities. Helvy and Thompson are black. Rodriguez is Hispanic, according to the release.
Staff turnover at the center ranges from 20 percent to 30 percent a year, with most of the departures resulting from part-time employees who leave for full-time work elsewhere, according to a county controller audit. Dispatchers earn an average of about $45,435 a year.
“I’m not surprised at employees filing lawsuits,” said Judy Bergamasco, who retired in May from the call center after 28 years as a dispatcher. “I’m never surprised at anything the county did in treating people. They were never fair.”
Bergamasco, 63, of Carrick said communication between rank-and-file employees and management was poor. Management deflected blame, didn’t listen to concerns and played favorites with dispatchers. Promotions went to friends, she said. She saw numerous outbursts and disagreements.
The 911 center has been sued before by families claiming dispatchers didn’t act appropriately to prevent loved ones from dying in emergencies.
Rodriguez took her complaints to Allegheny County Council members in January. Councilman Jim Ellenbogen, D-Banksville, called for an investigation, which is pending.
“I think if the county had a better system of investigating and addressing allegation of inequalities and hostilities in the workplace, morale would be well improved,” Rick Grejda, a former 911 dispatcher and official with Service Employees International Union Local 668, which represents county dispatchers.
Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or [email protected].