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GREEN BAY - Breast milk-pumping — and the privacy rights of women doing it — led to the abrupt resignation earlier this year of Brown County's top lawyer and a payment to her of almost $61,000. 

Juliana Ruenzel stopped working as corporation counsel on Feb. 15, and later resigned, because of run-ins with breastfeeding moms who worked in her department, according to six people familiar with the situation. 

Those people said women in the Law Department had complained to county officials about incidents that occurred during or shortly after they had left a room where they had been told employees could express breast milk in private. The sources are a Law Department employee, two former county employees, including one who said she reported the problem to the county's human resources department, and three county supervisors who were briefed on the issue in May by a lawyer handling the case for the county. 

The sources spoke on the condition that they not be identified, saying they had been threatened with legal action if they discussed the issue. Several described harassment of employees who had recently given birth, and said it led to three official complaints to county leaders and ultimately a February confrontation with Executive Troy Streckenbach.

Under the federal Affordable Care Act, employers are required to provide a “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk.” The law recognizes that the frequency of breaks and their duration may vary.

Ruenzel, 63, has not commented publicly, but two County Board members said she denied the allegations that employees were subjected to harassment. 

But the other sources said: 

► One worker, while partially dressed and in a room where women were told they would have privacy, was barged in on and harangued about her telephone-answering style. 

► At other times, an employee was criticized for the amount of time she spent expressing milk, and accused of abusing the county's policy on employees' work breaks. 

► At least one employee stopped using the department's law library to pump in favor of a room on another floor. She feared Ruenzel would barge in on her, despite the fact that the room has a combination lock, and a 'privacy' sign was displayed when the room was in use.

► Employees filed at least three complaints about Ruenzel. The first was filed in December. 

Six months' salary

Ruenzel was given a payment worth six months' salary on April 1, plus an amount that would cover her health, dental and vision coverage for nine months, according to county records obtained by USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin in response to an Open Records Law request. As part of the $60,578.71 settlement, Ruenzel received a letter of recommendation and agreed not to sue.

More than a dozen department heads have left the county's employ since Streckenbach was elected county executive. Ruenzel is the only one who was paid a financial settlement, Human Resources Director Brittany Zaehringer said in May.

Streckenbach has said little about the case other than that it involves personnel issues that require confidentiality.

Supervisors said they were told the separation agreement was 'a risk-management issue' when they met in closed session with a lawyer hired by the administration. They said there was little further explanation, and they were not told who filed the complaints.

One supervisor took 'risk-management issue' to mean administrators feared Ruenzel would sue for wrongful termination. 'I've talked with her, and she feels she got railroaded,' said a supervisor who questioned whether the complaints against Ruenzel were justified.

The aftermath has created issues in various areas of county government. A Law Department employee said the current workload is difficult because Ruenzel's position has not been filled, but 'I have (done) this job in worse situations.'

'I am thankful that, at the end of the day, the executive and the board protected employees,' the employee said, adding: 'We were mad (Ruenzel) got money.'

 'Total bull****'

The issue has created a rift between Streckenbach and county board members, many of whom are angry and disappointed that they didn't learn that Ruenzel had been paid a settlement until they were told about it by a reporter. That was two months after she and the executive agreed to the settlement — and three months after the last day she worked.

'This should have been brought to us from Day 1,' Green Bay supervisor Guy Zima, a frequent Streckenbach critic, said Wednesday. 'I want a full hearing before the County Board about everything that went on.'

Supervisors weren't briefed about the situation until May 18 — three days after a story in the Green Bay Press-Gazette disclosed the settlement and the letter of recommendation. Board members left frustrated that they had not been notified earlier that there were problems in the department, but several said the settlement was good for the county.

'She's resigned, and she's getting paid,' a supervisor said. 'But she was wrong.'

Once the closed session ended and the public was allowed back into the meeting, supervisors would not offer even a hint about what was behind Ruenzel's departure. They said Kyle Gulya, the lawyer hired by county administration, said divulging any information created a lawsuit risk.

'We are at risk of being sued by the other (people involved in) the issue,' one lawmaker said the board was told. 'We were sure threatened at the closed session that we could have an issue.'

The same supervisor said Streckenbach's failure to notify the board until two months after the settlement is 'total bull****.'

Streckenbach said in May that the board knew Ruenzel had been on leave, and he notified them via email in March that she had resigned.

'Personnel matter'

 Streckenbach would not discuss the reasons behind Ruenzel's departure, saying they constitute 'a personnel matter.' Asked why he OK'd a five-figure financial settlement with a department head who had resigned, he would say only it was to 'minimize exposure and risk' to the county and 'move the department ahead.'

Asked if Ruenzel had been disciplined, he referred a reporter to her most-recent performance review; it gave her a rating of 24 of a possible 25 points and makes no mention of discipline. Asked if she had been disciplined since then, he said that was 'a personnel matter.'

USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin has filed Open Records Law request for discipline records and other documents in the case.

As to the policy about accommodating nursing mothers, Streckenbach said the county follows federal mandates. He said employees are provided with 'accommodations' they can use during their paid breaks.

This isn't the first time the county has been criticized over privacy issues regarding breastfeeding women. In 2014, a woman complained that she was not allowed to express milk during a seven-day stay at the county jail, and that her newborn had suffered digestive issues because she couldn't breastfeed. County officials said the jail was not equipped to store breast milk.

dschneid@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @PGDougSchneider

 

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