Mayor Jane Williams-Warren ordered the city’s personnel director Abby Levenson, who had been allowed by business administrator Nellie Pou to telecommute, to cease working from home, according to municipal memorandum.
Williams-Warren’s memo voids the telecommute arrangement effective Feb. 1, 2018. She expresses disapproval of the arrangement by describing the duties of the personnel director, mainly, to handle the daily operations, including supervision of employees, of the Division of Personnel.
“Obviously, this is not happening when you are not in office several days a week,” reads the mayor’s memo dated Jan. 26, 2018. “Your job may not be effectively performed off-site.” She also received complaints from employees about Levenson’s “demeanor and treatment” of some employees, says the memo.
Levenson called the memo an “unfair attack” on her person in a letter dated Jan. 31, 2018. She called the allegation that she unfairly treated employees “slanderous” and “actionable” in court.
Williams-Warren’s action follows months of private and public criticism of the personnel director hired by disgraced mayor Jose “Joey” Torres two and half years ago. Her decision was well-received by council members.
“I’m totally aligned with the mayor on this one. It’s a key and essential position,” said councilman Kenneth Morris, chairman of the finance committee, which provides oversight over the administration. “With all the challenges that we have within the city, we need someone on the ground during the day to answer questions and to respond to the needs of our employees.”
The municipal government has 1,750 employees, according to payroll data. “I don’t know any corporation this size where the personnel director telecommutes. It’s just too essential a job function,” said Morris.
“It’s a vital position. Can you imagine the chief [of police] working from home?” added Luis Velez, 5th Ward councilman.
“We have a tremendous amount of personnel issues on a daily basis. It’s very difficult to manage that position from home,” said William McKoy, 3rd Ward councilman.
Levenson was allowed to work two days from home from April 14, 2017 to April 14, 2018 by the Torres administration. Her letter says the arrangement resulted from city employees “constantly calling” her while she was on maternity leave. Another “key” division employee took medical leave at the same time as her maternity leave.
“Due to lack of staff and needs of the personnel division, I was urged to work from home almost immediately, before even returning home from the hospital,” reads Levenson’s response. “I understood the needs of the city and without a thought I started working from home on a part time basis, even though this time was intended for my recover[y] and newborn bonding.”
Michael Jackson, 1st Ward councilman, was first among his colleagues to publicly criticize the personnel director.
“If I thought she was getting the job done and she was fair to all the employees across the board, I wouldn’t be making an issue of someone working from home,” said Jackson.
Jackson said there was uneven treatment of employees by the director.
Williams-Warren in a Nov. 16, 2017 memo requested documents, including phone logs, email logs, and time records of the days Levenson worked from home. The mayor never received a response.
Pou responded to that memo on Dec. 5, 2017, according to Levenson’s letter. Pou did not respond to a call for comment on Monday.
Levenson was never asked to maintain records for days worked from home. “If I had ever been required,” her letter says, “of course, [I] would have done so without a problem.”
Levenson declined to comment — citing “personnel matter” — when reached via phone on Monday afternoon.
The business administrator conducted periodic ‘reassessments’ and approved Levenson’s telecommute, according to municipal records. For instance, Pou conducted “reassessments” in June, July, and September of last year.
“I don’t know what evaluation the BA did,” said McKoy. Council members were never made aware of the personnel director’s arrangement, he said. It only emerged during the discussion of a lawsuit.
In her letter, the mayor also questions Levenson’s commitment to the city, by stating the personnel director has been applying for jobs elsewhere. Levenson claims that’s a violation of her privacy.
The council has scheduled a closed-door meeting for Wednesday night to discuss the matter.