New Caney, January 20 – Three employees of the East Montgomery County Senior Center have initiated an internal complaint with the County government and claimed that they have been shorted overtime payments for two years. The Center’s Facility Coordinator Rhonda Behnken and her two assistants contend that they have turned in hours for approximately two years that reflect that they should have received overtime for more than forty (40) hours per week of work as a result of not taking lunch breaks during that period. Behnken’s overtime claim is approximately $10,000 for the period, while each of her two assistants claim approximately $2,800.
Although discussions occurred between Precinct 4’s Commissioner Jim Clark and other county officials for a few months concerning the issue, Behnken and her colleagues initiated a formal review when they sent an email request to the County’s Human Resources, Audit, and Treasurer Department in December. Clark has complained that they should have initiated the formal process in a communication that included him.
When Behnken was hired, her initial list of duties included an explanation that her hours were 7 to 4:30, Monday through Thursday, and 7 to 1:30 on Fridays, with 30-minute lunch breaks. The time cards for all three employees have mentioned 30-minute lunch breaks for the past year, although the actual time which Behnken and the employees turned in to the Precinct 4 administrative office did not include any lunch breaks, because they contend that they have been unable to break for lunch in order to fulfill their responsibilities to the senior citizens requiring assistance, particularly during the lunch time period. The Precinct 4 administrative office turned in payroll payment requests to the County Treasurer showing 40 hours per week of work for each employee.
On Friday, January 6, at approximately 1 p.m., Precinct 4 Operations Manager Billy Bob Lee called Behnken and suggested that she meet Lee and County Commissioner Jim Clark at a restaurant and pub located on State Highway 242 across from the Montgomery County Animal Shelter to discuss the overtime issue. Commissioner Clark was sitting next to Lee at the time and lightheartedly commented, “If you plan to meet us on your personal time, if you’re planning on having drink, please take your county shirt off.” Behnken declined to meet with Clark and Lee at that time.
The following Monday morning, January 9, Behnken did meet with Lee and then with Lee and Clark at the administrative offices of Precinct 4. Lee explained to The Golden Hammer that the purpose of the meeting was to resolve the issue especially going forward. Lee further noted that he and Behnken jointly wrote a policy for the Senior Center employees that requires that all employees must take a 30-minute lunch break each day. Lee and Behnken then discussed that policy with Clark who approved the policy and examined methods by which the employees could ensure that they take those breaks, such as establishing a formal employee break room within the Center.
Lee added, “When we came into Precinct 4, we were trying to make things better because we weren’t handed an ideal situation. We want to continue to provide great service to the citizens of East County.”
Clark noted that he is “disappointed” that Behnken and the other employees have already hired Conroe lawyer John Choate to represent them in this matter involving their overtime claim against the County. Choate did not return a telephone call seeking comment on the story. Clark further commented, “I don’t want anyone who works through lunch not to be paid for it. We’re not in any sort of stalemate with Behnken and her co-employees, so I don’t understand why they already hired an attorney. I want a resolution to this issue by next week.”
The Office of the Montgomery County Auditor, Phyllis Martin, is conducting a formal audit of the employees’ time records. She will give the results of that audit to Clark, County Attorney J.D. Lambright, and County Treasurer Stephanne Davenport who processes the bi-weekly payroll.
Clark told The Golden Hammer, “Our Senior Center is spic and span and a great place for our seniors to have fun. We love our senior citizens. I spend a lot of time over there with the seniors myself, as does my entire staff. We want the East Montgomery County Senior Center to be a happy place for the seniors and an employee-friendly place as well. I love that place.”
Behnken told The Golden Hammer’s Publisher Eric Yollick, “I know who you are. I’m not allowed to discuss anything that’s going on per county policy.”