Workers blame death on stress

January 04, 1995|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun Staff Writer

When a Baltimore County government cabinetmaker burned his workplace and shot himself to death, his colleagues were saddened but not completely surprised.

Although Aubrey "Skip" Wainwright suffered from emotional problems and alcoholism, they say, an atmosphere of tension, harassment and intimidation in their shop helped push him over the edge.

Colleagues say his suicide and the destruction of the shop Nov. 3 symbolize deep morale problems in the county's Building Services Division -- and that their complaints have gone unheeded for months.

"There was nobody surprised that something like this happened. We all saw what he did as a statement," said Robert "Butch" Ford, 50, a carpenter who worked beside Mr. Wainwright at the county's Texas shop complex in Cockeysville.

Workers recite a litany of complaints ranging from "punishment" repair details at the county Detention Center to the case of a radio dispatcher who was reprimanded for greeting work crews with a cheerful "good morning."

County officials concede that management has been heavy-handed at times, but they say they are working on improvements. In any case, they argue that the problems are neither as serious nor widespread as some workers say.

"If you boil it down, it's no more than a dozen people. I don't think it's a serious problem," said John R. Miller, head of the Department of Central Services, which oversees the Building Services Division. "I don't think it's a dangerous problem."

The division's 200 employees are responsible for maintaining all of the county's 776 nonschool buildings, a mission that includes remodeling, constructing custom furniture and painting.

The disgruntled workers lay most of the blame on B. Wayne Eicholtz, who has run the division since 1988. Mr. Eicholtz refused to discuss the issues they raise.

"I really don't have anything to say about it," he said.

Sought county action

Edward M. Pedrick Jr., president of Local 921 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said he had been trying to get the county administration to take action on the workers' complaints since April, but had seen no real changes.

"I was concerned about the safety of the employees," Mr. Pedrick said. "I went through the chain of command."

County executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, who was sworn in Dec. 5, has asked for a performance audit of the division. But Stephen Kirchner, Mr. Ruppersberger's top financial officer, said the audit will take months to complete because county budget analysts are focusing on preparing next year's budget.

The violent episode that brought the complaints to light occurred Nov. 3, when firefighters responding to a roaring blaze at the cinder-block shop in Cockeysville found Mr. Wainwright's body outside. Mr. Wainwright, who had worked at the shop for five years and had a history of emotional turmoil and alcohol abuse, apparently set the fire and then shot himself in the head with a 9-mm pistol, police said. He left a wife and two young sons.

The carpentry and paint shops in the building were destroyed, along with the county's specialized cabinetmaking tools and two county vehicles.

County officials say they may not replace the tools and are considering contracting with private firms for custom-built furniture.

Problems remain

While officials say the county may buy another warehouse nearby to replace the burned building, some workers say the problems remain. Among their complaints:

* Assignments to the county Detention Center, where the employees must often mix with inmates and have minimal protection. Workers complain that assignments to the jail often have been used as punishment, although county officials deny it.

* Stifling of complaints by arbitrary punishments and equally arbitrary management actions. For example, employees complained that Mr. Eicholtz removed an air conditioner from their shop June 17, when temperatures were above 90 degrees, for no apparent reason. The unit was returned two days later after union protests.

* A long-running dispute over promotions for carpenters who are also skilled cabinetmakers, a slightly higher-paying and more prestigious job classification. Colleagues said Mr. Wainwright had been particularly upset over his failure to win the promotion.

* The county's lack of response to the complaints workers filed.

Although he said the problems aren't serious, Mr. Miller confirmed that a "climate" survey based on summer interviews with a quarter of the division's 200 workers showed that 80 percent were unhappy.

The survey was completed in August, but county administrative officer Merreen E. Kelly said he never

had a chance to discuss the results with former County #i Executive Roger B. Hayden before Mr. Hayden's election defeat Nov. 8.

Mr. Miller conceded that the county's practice of promoting people from the ranks without providing management training should change.

"We want to get rid of the 'check your brain at the door' mind-set. Everybody doesn't need a kick . . . ," he said.

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