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Fired WCU worker will return to work

WCUWhile most people are mourning the coming of another Monday, Rob Russell will be rejoicing as he returns to his job at Western Carolina University Feb. 15. 

After being fired from his job as an electrician in November 2014, Russell, 52, had filed a lawsuit claiming the university had sent him packing without a real reason. He won the suit, but WCU appealed the decision. Now, the university has decided to drop the appeal and invited Russell to resume his job — with backpay and benefits — on Monday. 

He got the good news around 4 p.m. Friday, Feb. 5, and has been ecstatic ever since. 

“I’m excited,” Russell said. “I’m glad they (WCU) made it right.”

WCU does not wish to comment on the decision or on the situation, university spokesman Bill Studenc said, but confirmed that Russell will be resuming his post come Feb. 15. 

The events that led to Russell’s firing in the first place started soon after his was hired to the university’s Division of Facilities Management in August 2012. For training, Russell was paired with Michael Carpenter, an electrician who had worked for the division since 2005. Conflict soon resulted as Russell witnessed Carpenter stealing a variety of items, such as Catamount T-shirts and scrap copper, according to N.C. Administrative Judge Donald Overby’s October 2015 decision in favor of Russell. 

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Russell went to his boss, Terry Watson, asking to be paired with a different worker, but he was refused. Eventually he went higher in the chain of command for relief, resulting in Carpenter’s arrest and firing. 

However, Carpenter was soon restored to his position after he challenged the termination and won. That Carpenter had stolen wasn’t in question, but theft was rampant in the facilities division, Joe Walker — Vice Chancellor for Facilities Management — determined after hearing Carpenter’s case. If he upheld Carpenter’s firing, he reasoned, he’d have to fire most of the division’s staff. 

So, he did what Overby called taking “the easy way out” and reinstated Carpenter with no punishment other than a general admonishment to staff that stealing wasn’t allowed. A condition of Carpenter’s return was that he and Russell would not have to work together, with Walker instructing Russell to come to him if he had any problems. 

Problems ensued, according to Overby’s decision. Russell became “persona non grata” among his colleagues, Overby wrote, and on one occasion a desired overtime shift originally assigned to Russell was shifted to another employee for no reason. Russell was assigned to dig ditches on a regular basis. It became well known that Watson was his enemy. 

On Russell’s last day at work, the facilities division was working on a large project at which both Russell and Carpenter were present. Though they were originally working on two separate parts of the project, Russell was later ordered to team up with Carpenter. He refused repeatedly before walking off the site to find Walker, as he’d been instructed to do. Instead he found Lee Smith, who was under Walker in the chain of command but above Watson. Russell told Smith what had happened and that he’d need to go home and “cool off.” Smith didn’t tell him not to, so that’s what he did. 

But Smith opted to place Russell on investigatory leave, and five days later Russell was called into a “pre-disciplinary conference” in which he was accused of leaving the work site without permission, working slowly on purpose and destroying the pipe he was working with, also on purpose. The next day, Russell was informed he’d been fired. 

Overby was unequivocal in his finding that Russell had been fired without cause — he was just doing what he’d believed he’d been instructed to in such a situation and certainly hadn’t been turning our poor work on purpose — and in scolding the university for its handling of the case, particularly the rehiring of Carpenter after he’d been found stealing. 

“The University took the easy way out by turning its back on criminal activity by its employees,” Overby wrote. “It may have avoided being on the front page of the newspaper, but in so doing WCU gave a wholesale endorsement of bad and criminal behavior which should not have been tolerated.”

However, the university had initially appealed the decision, though it never filed a document stating the basis for the appeal. By the same token, the university has not yet filed anything notifying the courts that it will not be pursuing the appeal but has extended an offer to Russell to resume work with full benefits and backpay, as ordered by Overby. 

Watson retired from WCU in May 2015 after 29 years with the university, but Carpenter is still employed at the same position and salary level as he was at the time Russell was fired. 

“A lot of people say you got that target on your back, be careful,” Russell said. “I’m just going to be a good little worker and work my butt off.” 

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