Some WSI employees say they're not scared to speak
BISMARCK -- Three employees of Workforce Safety and Insurance told legislators Wednesday they don't fear speaking up about the agency but are tired of WSI receiving negative attention.
"At no time have I ever felt intimidated for voicing my opinion," Harvey Hanel, pharmacy department manager at WSI told the Legislature's interim Industry, Business and Labor Committee.
He said the staff is tired of being compared to Nazis and seeing other insults and negative judgments laid on the agency; that is why they are reluctant to speak out.
"We take it personally," Hanel said. "We've already been tried and convicted by the news media and by some legislators. When you hear that over and over, you don't want to appear in the paper."
A claims analyst was another of the few workers who testified.
"I completely agree with Harvey," said Rebecca Nagel. I have never felt nervous or scared."
The IBL Committee is studying issues at WSI and asked Wednesday to hear concerns from employees and medical providers. Dozens of WSI employees were at the meeting, but for a time, it looked like no one would come to the podium. No one from the medical community responded to Berg's invitation, either, though representatives of the state's hospitals and doctors were in the audience.
The meeting, held in the WSI office building in Bismarck, was linked to three other cities so WSI employees outside Bismarck could be heard.
Sandy Bilstad, a WSI nurse case manager in Fargo who has worked for the agency less than two years, told the lawmakers "it would be great" if the state would focus on building on WSI's positive traits "and not get caught up with the political aspects."
"That's what we're trying to do here," said the chairman, Rep. Rick Berg, R-Fargo.
The fourth employee to testify was Jim Long, a WSI executive who has been suspended with pay since last fall. He has been critical of the agency's management and invoked the state's whistle-blower protection law. He did so because about 40 WSI employees have called him with their concerns, he said.
"They're scared. They're absolutely scared," he said. He asked legislators to find a way to take anonymous comments from employees, just as the State Auditor's Office did in 2006.
"Scared of who and what?" asked Rep. Mark Dosch, R-Bismarck.
Long said a friend of his in the agency was in trouble after the last IBL Committee meeting because someone thought the friend had provided Long with information for testimony.
Berg noted the Legislature has made it a class B misdemeanor to retaliate against employees for talking to legislators.
The committee continues to meet today.
Janell Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Dickinson Press.