Michigan public assistance worker punished for posting help line on billboard

The Associated Press

Flint – A woman said she was suspended from her job with the state of Michigan because she posted a customer service number on a billboard to help people cut through red tape at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Kim Ehl was a general office assistant in Flint until she resigned this month. In April 2018, she rented a billboard to display a customer service number because she was frustrated over office policy, which required that people leave messages with five levels of management before staff could provide the help line information.

She said the department responded by suspending her for three days for behaving “in an inappropriate manner” that may harm its reputation. The agency also said she failed to obtain approval for the billboard.

Ehl said she was frustrated by what she called the poor customer service at the office, which handles public assistance.

“I couldn’t get anyone to listen … and I did it to piss them off, too,” Ehl said. “I was protesting poor treatment and neglect of clients. … I wanted to get attention, (and I thought), ‘Why can’t I put the number up?’”

Ehl said in an email to MLive-The Flint Journal that the Flint office “never encouraged educating our clientele of what was available,” even though city residents are entitled to certain benefits by law.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2017, Flint is the poorest city of its size in the nation. Nearly 39% of the city’s residents and 60% of children are living in poverty.

A spokesman at the human service department, Bob Wheaton, said the agency doesn’t discuss personnel matters like those involving Ehl and her billboard. He added, though, that there’s a policy requiring all agency advertising to be approved by the department’s communications office.

Ehl said she resigned effective July 19 because she became discouraged.

“I just cannot take desperation of people getting poor treatment,” she said. “Flint deserves better. Despite being screwed over … our clients were always kind and gracious toward me.”