The S.C. Department on Aging is a toxic workplace where state employees flout rules and are in open conflict with each other, state senators were told Wednesday by the man appointed to lead the agency.
The internal strife led one 30-year state employee to quit earlier this year, citing a “hostile and toxic environment,” interim agency director Stephen Morris testified to a Senate panel.
Morris, Gov. Henry McMaster’s nominee to lead the department, began a difficult road to confirmation Wednesday that has already featured questions about his qualifications and an accusation that he is a racist.
The 71-year-old businessman and former Richland County councilman defended himself, repeating the phrase “I do not discriminate” several times and explaining what he has done to re-establish order and make the agency more efficient.
But in doing so, Morris, who has led the 42-employee department for four months, shed light on problems he described as systemic and impossible to solve overnight.
Morale is dreadful, and some employees come and go from the office as they please without punching their timecards, Morris said.
Senior citizens calling the agency for help sometimes are sent to a voicemail — not a human — because the switchboard routed their calls to an employee who was supposed to be at his or her desk, but left the office without signing out, he said.
And employees still hold grudges against each other over how $3,000 bonuses were awarded last fall under a previous director, when more than half of the employees got cash and others got nothing, Morris said.
“The agency has deteriorated,” he said of the department, which works with local aging offices to provide services that allow S.C. seniors to continue to live independently in their homes.
Emails sent by employees to the Senate panel — and read aloud by state Sen. Richard Cash, R-Anderson — appear to back that up. They included complaints of employees intimidating and bullying each other, as well as about Morris himself.
One email accused a supervisor at the agency of loudly criticizing an employee’s performance in the office for anyone to hear. Morris acknowledged the episode “probably happened” after a dispute that led to the supervisor being named in an open-records request.
“He was very irritated,” Morris said of the supervisor. “That’s what happens when policy isn’t followed. One employee gets irritated at another, and they’re going to say stuff they shouldn’t.”
Some of the emails were sent by employees who disagree with their supervisors’ decisions, Morris said. One employee, for example, has been upset at a supervisor who wouldn’t let employees take home state-owned vehicles at night.
Cash said one of the complaints described working in the office as “like watching a reality show sometimes.”
“I don’t disagree with that,” Morris replied. “There is infighting going on.”
Morris said those kinds of cultural problems have plagued the agency for a decade and can’t be solved “in the next 30 minutes or the next 30 days.” But he said he would eventually root them out by strictly enforcing the agency’s rules and procedures, which protect employees against bullying or other mistreatment.
“I didn’t create any of those concerns,” Morris said. “And the concerns that may be brand new — there are some people that do not want to follow procedures. They want to do what they want to do.”
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, McMaster backed his pick for the agency, saying the Agency Department’s problems will work themselves out if Morris can get employees to behave.
“If you follow the rules, people know what they’re supposed to do, and they’re happy to do it, that’s when you have high morale,” McMaster said.
The Senate panel had to adjourn before taking a vote on Morris’ confirmation. They will meet again to continue questioning him next at 9 a.m. next Wednesday.