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Marriage leads to demotion for Nashville utility worker

10:43 AM, Dec 27, 2012   |    comments
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Gary Clarke lost around $30,000 in annual pay and was demoted by a public utility company in Tennessee after he married his longtime girlfriend.

Clarke's new father-in-law was an employee at Nashville Electric Service, where Clarke worked as a cable splicer. When the company determined that his 2007 marriage to Sabrina Ragan violated its nepotism policy, Clarke was moved to a lesser job in a different department.

Clarke, a 38-year-old Lebanon man who had worked at the utility for nearly a decade, became a meter service technician at the utility, which employs nearly 1,000 people. After he tried unsuccessfully to resolve the dispute through an administrative process, Clarke then filed a complaint against NES in state court.

The Court of Appeals of Tennessee recently affirmed the trial court's decision that the public utility's use of its nepotism policy, forbidding employees from supervising or closely working with a relative, was "arbitrary" and "capricious." The policy is intended to prevent workplace discrimination and bias in hiring.

NES is not alone in arbitrarily applying its nepotism policy to employees, according to labor attorney Michelle Owens, the attorney for Clarke's union, the Service Employees International Union, who filed the complaint on his behalf. Many public and private companies in Tennessee invoke the rules over-cautiously, even when there is not a clear conflict of interest, she said.

"The opinion means that employers can't make up nepotism policies as they go along," Owens said. "The far-reaching implication is that companies have to follow their nepotism policies."

Clarke, who still works for NES, declined to comment on the case.

NES officials would not say whether they plan to appeal the opinion to the state Supreme Court. They have 60 days to do so.

But NES spokesman William Hill said by email that the utility "believes a nepotism policy is important to the effective functioning of the organization and is consistent with best practices."

The question at the heart of the clash was whether Clarke worked in the same NES "section" as Kevin Snider, who became Clarke's father-in-law.

According to NES' policy, no employee can work under the supervision of a relative, defined as "a spouse, child, parent, brother, sister, or in-law," either directly or indirectly. It also says that no two relatives can work in the same "section," a term the courts found to be murky.

Snider, a maintenance mechanic, did not supervise Clarke, nor did the two men work together, according to the appeals court. Still, because of an organizational change years before, NES technically considered them to be in the same "section."

But that argument was rejected by both courts.

"It's commonplace for companies to prevent employees from supervising relatives, but as this case shows, the policies are often hard to manage," Owens said. "This win shows how ludicrous the demotion was in the first place."

What is distinct about NES' policy is the broadness of the rule. Not all employers consider an in-law a relative in nepotism policies. Because NES does, there have been cases of employees unknowingly breaking the rule.

Doug Collier, president of SEIU Local 205, which represents 650 of the public utility's employees, said the union agreed to pursue Clarke's case because of how egregiously unfair the rule was applied.

"Sometimes there is really no problem, no nepotism, but the system doesn't see it that way."

Bobby Allyn, The Tennessean

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