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Racy e-mails nab 26 workers

After "explicit'' messages bounce back, Swiftmud cracks down on employees for sending personal e-mails.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2000


BROOKSVILLE -- Water management officials are cracking down on more than just lawn sprinklers.

About two dozen employees with the Southwest Florida Water Management District face up to a two-week suspension without pay for using company computers to send personal e-mail and sexual jokes.

The 26 employees work in Swiftmud offices in Tampa, Brooksville and Venice and started receiving notices of their pending punishments this week, said spokesman Michael Molligan.

Employees will have 21 days to appeal their punishments, which range from an oral or written reprimand to one- and two-week unpaid suspensions.

Molligan could not say how many employees received each punishment.

Because so many employees are involved, the suspensions need to be staggered to keep offices running smoothly, Molligan said. The action comes after an internal review of e-mails turned up messages that had little to do with water regulations.

"It ran the gamut. Some things were not district related, and some things were potentially offensive," Molligan said, referring to the sexual jokes. "What determined the punishment was looking at the volume and also at the content."

Employees say morale has plummeted at Swiftmud after what they considered a draconian response to the situation. Clashes like this one are increasingly in the spotlight as more employers monitor workers' e-mail use, prompting debate over employee privacy rights.

"It's all public records, it's not a privacy issue (at Swiftmud). We know we were in the wrong to some extent," said Lauren Decker, a civil engineer in the Tampa office, who was told Friday she would have been disciplined if she hadn't already resigned this week to take another job. "But the biggest issue is that we were never verbally reprimanded. It was straight from the investigation to being punished."

The internal investigation of e-mail began in January after "explicit" messages by two employees were kicked back into the system, unable to be delivered, said Decker, a three-year employee who reviews environmental resource permit applications. The messages caught the attention of agency officials, who started a fuller review. Molligan said he did not have information Friday about how the investigation started.

Nine weeks ago, Decker and the other employees were told they would be disciplined for abuse of the e-mail system but were not told how until Friday.

"People have been on eggshells, scared to death something was going to happen," Decker said. "Nine weeks waiting for a punishment. . . . It was putting people through hell."

Decker was taken into a private office Friday with four supervisors. She said she was angry at the way she was treated, especially after receiving the highest marks possible at her year-end review in 1999. Decker admits sending out a few sexual jokes to friends through district e-mail. But she said most of her messages were to family members and organizations where she volunteered.

"They said, "You wrote your boyfriend, you wrote your family, you wrote your soccer team,' " Decker said, quoting a supervisor. "She had my whole life history right there. She was carrying it around with her. They were so cold. It was awful."

Molligan, who did not have information on specific content of the e-mails, said employees should have known better. They signed forms when they obtained their accounts agreeing not to use the e-mail for anything but work.

"The information is also included in the employee handbook," he said. The district employs 735 people. Molligan said some of the 26 employees have not been told yet about their punishments.

"The point is, district equipment was being used for personal purposes, and district time was being used for personal purposes," he said.

The e-mail crackdown at the water management district isn't unique. A growing number of employers monitor workers to make sure they are not wasting company time on an increasing number of electronic distractions. Last year, at least 45 percent of employers said they monitored their employees' phone calls, computer files or e-mails -- up from 35 percent two years ago, according to the American Management Association.

Other companies have fired workers because of e-mail contents. The New York Times reported that at the New York Times Co., 23 employees in a Norfolk, Va., office that handles most of the company's personnel records, accounting and payroll operations were dismissed in December for sending what were considered obscene messages.

Decker said employees at Swiftmud would have stopped their behavior if given a chance.

"But this whole Gestapo tactic of taking people in there," she said. "My one friend is pregnant. There's a lot of people in there that can't afford two weeks without pay."

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