Holding the Government Accountable

At VA, Complaint Couched in Humor Was a Punishable Offense

To the long list of management problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs, add another: A deficient sense of humor.

In May 2013, a manager at the VA’s Palo Alto Health Care System issued a written reprimand to employee Stuart Kallio for “expressing animosity toward your organization . . . and managers.”

How, exactly, was Kallio alleged to have expressed “animosity” toward the VA?

The first count in the formal reprimand cites an email that Kallio—a supervisor in a hospital pharmacy who had a history of complaining about what he saw as waste and mismanagement—sent to colleagues on April 29, 2013, when, to make room for a new employee, he was being evicted from his cubicle.

The message was titled “The Homeless Supervisor.”

“Effective Monday, May 6, 2013, the Pharmacy Service is withdrawing support from and downgrading the working conditions of the position of Inpatient Pharmacy Technician Supervisor,” it begins. “I will be surrendering my desk, my chair, my computer, my phone, and my work space to a newer, more important employee.”

Then Kallio tells colleagues where to find him:

“As of the above specified date I will be working from various picnic tables around campus. I will maintain my files and office materials in a shopping cart that I will push from picnic table to picnic table to try to stay one step ahead of the VA Police to avoid arrest for vagrancy and loitering. Palo Alto has a city ordinance against sitting or lying down on sidewalks so I will have to keep moving . . . .”

Kallio goes on to imagine an alternative work space:

“If anyone is looking for me and can’t find me at any of the picnic tables around campus, you might try looking in the abandoned building 2. I may become a resident squatter in that derelict building.”

But Kallio points out that homelessness can be hazardous:

“. . . I won’t have computer access in building 2, so when hospital administration announces the demolition of building 2 by sending out an email, I won’t be able to receive that email. So if after the demolition of building 2 I am no longer seen pushing my shopping cart containing my occupational life through the pharmacy on my daily trip to pick up my mail, you can assume that my carcass was hauled off with the debris from the demolished building 2.”

For his satirical airing of grievance, Kallio was charged with “Inappropriate Conduct.” In the letter of reprimand, the chief of the pharmacy service, Kelly O. Robertson, wrote:

“You are to respect individual’s [sic] time and bandwidth by refraining from sending unnecessary messages. . . . Furthermore, you are to refrain from negative verbal and nonverbal communication or discussions that would diminish Veterans, reputation of the facility, its leadership, its employees, or the care it provides.”

Kallio told the Project On Government Oversight that he was responding with humor to a stressful situation: He couldn’t see how he was going to be able to do his job.

The second of the three emails for which Kallio was reprimanded said that he was unfairly chastised for using the wrong procedure when calling in sick one day. “We have a policy covering weekend sick calls, but we do not follow it,” Kallio wrote. He said he did not have a copy of the third email cited in the reprimand, but he believed it briefly elaborated on the first by suggesting that colleagues follow the direction of the rising sun to find him.

Kallio said the reprimand came months after he told managers that he was considering reporting what he saw as problems at the hospital to the agency’s Inspector General. In hindsight, he said, he wonders if being displaced and reprimanded might have been retaliation for airing his concerns. Employees who blow the whistle are often shunted aside, literally and figuratively.

POGO sought comment from a spokesman for the Palo Alto VA and the manager who issued Kallio’s reprimand. We did not hear back.

As it turns out, Kallio’s carcass was not hauled off from an abandoned building. After beginning to clean out a supply closet to create a work space for himself, he told POGO, he was shoehorned into the space where a visitor would ordinarily sit in his boss’s office. That space was later remodeled to accommodate two desks, he said.

But, as POGO has reported, after complaining up the hospital’s chain of command that veterans were suffering from errors and delays in the delivery of medications, Kallio was recently ordered not to speak out publicly.

He was also placed on administrative leave (by a VA administrator who has since been given the expanded job of overseeing the VA’s Southwest region).

Now Kallio isn’t just displaced from his cubicle; he’s been banned from the VA Palo Alto campus altogether. Including, it would seem, the aforementioned picnic tables.

Image from Flickr user schizoform.