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Legal analyst Anne-Marie Amiel and senior geographic information system analyst Andy Winz review a proposal for an asset management system. Amiel's training helps her spot language that potential vendors use to airbrush weaknesses in their product or bid. Photo: Tammy Barry

Bogged down in disciplinary actions? Trying to write a “non-discriminatory” job description? City hall too busy to help out?

Hire a lawyer.

Chesapeake, Va., got a handle on legal costs by hiring a lawyer to ensure that all 500 employees understand their rights and responsibilities under state and federal laws designed to ensure job applicants and employees are treated fairly regardless of age, race, religion, gender, disability, or national origin.

The city created the position of “legal analyst” within the public works department at the request of director Patricia Biegler, who inherited a handful of discrimination complaints when she was hired in 1999. Anne-Marie Amiel, a graduate of the London School of Economics and a member of the Virginia State Bar, joined public works a year later.

Amiel doesn't negotiate contracts or represent the city in litigation; the city has its own lawyer for that. Instead, her job is to keep public works—the city's largest department—out of court.

To that end, she analyzes the implications of proposed personnel actions, disciplinary proceedings, recruitment efforts, and policy changes. She tells supervisors and crew members what documentation is required for field work and where and how to file it. She investigates employee discrimination complaints. She vets the department's responses to questions from residents, businesses, and other government agencies to ensure they properly define public works' authority.

“I think of my job as handling the day-to-day business of the department and its employees, keeping everyone safe and comfortable in their jobs, and ensuring that all the daily duties being carried out by our employees are carried out within the law,” she says. In the past two years, only one formal complaint has been filed (unsuccessfully) against a supervisor.

Worker's compensation is by far Amiel's greatest challenge. “You can start to manage costs if you identify problematic areas, but privacy laws mean you have to be very careful about what you discuss and with whom,” she says.

One of the goals of workers' compensation is to ensure employees get treatment that enables them to come back to work as soon as possible. To speed recovery, the department:

  • Ensures employees see the appropriate doctor. By law, the department can't tell an employee whom to see, but it can answer questions about specialists most appropriate for their injury.
  • Assigns a nurse-manager to long-term cases, ensuring that treatment is carried out in the best manner at the best time.
  • Designs light-duty assignments for employees who can perform some tasks but aren't yet ready to return to their job. Light-duty work makes employees feel useful, and the department gets some work done instead of paying medical fees and wage replacement.
  • Uses “work-hardening” programs to help fully recovered employees return to work.

Work-hardening programs require employees to perform tasks equivalent to the motions they do in their regular job for a given length of time, usually 8 hours a day for at least a week.

For instance, a sanitation worker who used to pick up 60-lb. trash cans all day will pick up and move 60-lb. weights the way he would to haul garbage into trucks. The department provides precise details regarding the tasks to be carried out, including distances and weights.

“In the long run, all this helps keep employees healthier, both physically and in terms of morale, and has the added benefit of cutting costs,” Amiel says.

For more information, pick up a copy of the revised Public Works Administration manual, due to be released by the American Public Works Association (www.apwa.net) in September, to which Amiel contributed.