AFTERNOON DELIGHT

AN INQUIRY TURNS DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES OFFICIALS INTO PICNIC BASKET CASES.

It's a sunny July day at Denver's Washington Park and, over by the picnic pavilion, 150 shorts-clad revelers are eating, drinking, playing games and frolicking to the extent permitted by the 90-plus degree heat. So what's wrong with this picture?

The picnickers are employees of Denver's Department of Social Services. It's a weekday afternoon. And they're getting paid to party.

The event three weeks ago is something of a time-honored tradition; last year, and the year before that, Denver taxpayers coughed up between $20,000 and $30,000 in wage compensation alone to provide a few hours of fun for up to 1,000 city workers.

The picnics grew out of a desire to enhance employee morale and encourage "team building," says Social Services spokeswoman Roseanne Stiblo, as well as to show appreciation for the department's employees. "These are tough jobs," she adds. "We're saying `Thank you' to the employees and `We appreciate your hard work.'"

Now, however, management is going to have to find another way to say thank you. The party's over. Not only has the last wiener been roasted, but so have the officials who authorized the festivities.

The day after receiving an inquiry about the annual event from Westword, Mayor Wellington Webb put an end to the taxpayer-funded picnics.

"Employee picnics and holiday parties are a valued tradition in both the public and private sectors," Webb said in a written statement to Westword. "Office social events can contribute to team building and ultimately better service to customers. However, in the case of Social Services picnics being held during business hours, I do not believe that it is appropriate for taxpayers to cover costs related to an employee social event regardless of the intangible benefits that may be realized."

But it was fun while it lasted. And it lasted quite a while.
For the past several years, each of the department's nine divisions has enjoyed an afternoon of relaxation in Washington Park, Huston Lake Park or Sloan Lake. (No divisions played hooky on the same day.) Although some workhorse units were known to slip away only for an extended lunch of two hours or so, most divisions spent four hours schmoozing, playing volleyball and gnawing on barbequed ribs, chicken and watermelon.

Stiblo stresses that the department itself was never closed, and that a skeleton crew was always left behind by the partying division, with personnel available for emergencies. But a disgruntled city employee points out that when the department's computer support division took off for a few hours earlier this summer, the remainder of the 900-worker Department of Social Services was left to deal with computer glitches on their own.

The picnics were never really gala events; some employees refer to them as "lame" or even "boring." But for a small cash contribution (to cover the cost of food and soft drinks), it was a good way to get out of work. Those who chose not to attend had to remain at the office and, as a result, the turnouts were generally pretty good. Of the 180 employees in the self-sufficiency eligibility division, where workers determine whether or not someone is eligible to receive Medicaid or Aid for Dependent Children, all but 30 signed on for this summer's fete.

Everyone who attended the picnics received regular pay; no one was docked or forced to use vacation pay or annual leave time. It was a perk okayed by the those at the highest levels of the department, although unknown to the city's top brass. In fact, Social Services director Phil Hernandez saw no harm in it.

When first contacted by Westword, Hernandez brusquely declined to discuss the matter, instructing Stiblo to speak for him instead. And while Stiblo gamely attempted to soothe the potential storm, Hernandez was explaining to his employees why he still supported the picnics.

In an August 9 memo to his staff entitled "Much Ado About Picnics," Hernandez defended the events as "part of our continuing efforts to recognize the work and contributions of employees." The picnics are held during the work week, he wrote, so that the maximum number of employees can attend.

"We ask a lot of our employees who manage increasing workloads in a difficult work environment," he wrote. "We view our employees as critical assets for the accomplishment of our mission. We consider the two to four hours set aside for a division picnic as an investment which enhances their value."

(Hernandez somehow must have missed the uproar earlier this year when a dozen of his colleagues at Adams County Social Services were called on the carpet for taking two hours out of their work week to watch The Lion King.)

Other Denver officials were not nearly so supportive of the concept when they learned that taxpayers were footing the bill for an afternooon of organized loafing.

"I think it's a real tough situation when people expect 100 percent efficiency from government employees, and when they're wanting to see the fat trimmed out of the budget," says city councilwoman Debbie Ortega. "People already feel that too much of their money goes to support the government."

But Hernandez didn't see things that way until Webb helped change his viewpoint. Two days after the mayor had a chat with him about the subject, Hernandez issued this terse statement: "The department's Executive Management Committee has reviewed the practice of using department time for annual division picnics. While we feel that picnics are an appropriate expression of appreciation to our employees, we also recognize that public agencies need to be accountable and sensitive to public perceptions. We therefore have decided that future division picnics will be scheduled for after hours, or on weekends."

Those divisions that have not yet held their picnics this summer are out of luck, Stiblo confirms. They'll have to schedule their fun for outside work hours.

 
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