ELKHART COUNTY Ten Elkhart County highway workers were released this morning for "restructuring purposes."
The individuals released were under a "multi-purpose" classification, essentially all plow drivers. The department had 38 of these positions, but 10 were released today and three spots are vacant. As a result, the current number of drivers is down to 25.
County administrator Tom Byers said the move will save roughly $400,000 this year.
"This is pretty revolutionary for a county highway to make the kind of change we made today, and we've been working on it a couple years," said Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder.
According to Yoder, the commissioners decided to hold off on releasing a large grouping of employees until the economy recovered and the job market had improved. During the past year and a half other changes were made to the department, including the elimination and introduction of new foreman.
"We began looking at ways to restructure, reorganize in a way that we could do the same level quality of work with less employees," Yoder explained.
Just a few weeks ago Elkhart County highway released two of its four in-house mechanics.
Among the two released was James Hinken, a seven year employee of the Elkhart County Highway Dept.
"I had a good evaluation, never clocked in late, never missed a call out" said Hinken. When he was notified of his termination Hinken said he was told the department would be outsourcing some of the work.
When asked about the recent release of mechanics, Yoder explained that some of the mechanical work will still be done by county workers, however highway supervisors are trying to find ways to make outsourcing of some of the repairs more cost efficient.
The county also made deals with private contractors to help with plowing over the past two winters, both times in an effort to save money said Yoder.
Yoder described the county's efforts as a "balancing act" between keeping the costs within the diminishing highway budget and keeping workers employed.
Despite 10 individuals being let go Friday morning, and two others in February the highway department is still hiring.
According to officials, the vacant positions are ones that highway supervisors and foremen felt none of the released employees were capable of adequately filling.
The entire streamlining process has left many former highway employees feeling confused and a little disgruntled.
Since new managers stepped in less than two years ago, a group of plow drivers and mechanics began keeping track of how many workers were released, retired or resigned.
As of Friday, they say approximately 31 individuals have left in some way, shape or form.
NewsCenter 16 spoke with one worker who said she received an above-average evaluation in December, only to be released in Friday's restructuring.
Jessica Miller said she was commended for her willingness to learn and try new tasks, thus was shocked to hear her name among the 10 to be released on Friday.
"It was just hard because I wasn't expecting it, I haven't done anything wrong" said Miller, holding back tears.
Miller claimed her supervisors told her to be more direct with her complaints after she indicated a lack of trust for certain managers after a bathroom incident earlier in 2013.
"I had a bathroom incident, I had asked to go to the bathroom and I was told to go into the back of the truck and go," Miller explained that she went to the heads of the department and never got an apology from the individual responsible.
Other former employees allege that the new foreman changed their routes, making them too long to complete on time and too unfamiliar that they were unsafe.
"We were driving trucks with wasn't familiar with, routes we wasn't familiar with, it was like driving blind 24/7" said Don Rumfelt who resigned two weeks ago because he was fed up with the direction the department was heading.
Commissioner Yoder said he and highway supervisors hadn't detected any safety issues since cutting back on employees this winter, adding that they anticipate a certain degree of malcontent after a big change up in the department.