Former Birmingham Water Works employees say they warned of billing problems ahead of crisis, also claim they were told to change billing dates

BWWB Ex-employees say they warned of billing problems
Published: Sep. 7, 2022 at 2:00 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 7, 2022 at 5:52 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Two former Birmingham Water Works employees say they warned management for months of problems in the utility’s billing department, well before thousands of customers began going months without getting a bill. And WBRC FOX6 News has obtained an email exchange appearing to show the Birmingham Water Works Board General Manager was specifically warned of problems in the billing department as early as December 2021.

A former employee contacted On Your Side Investigator Jonathan Hardison after reading and watching his reporting on billing issues and more.

For the sake of clarity and because she does not want to reveal her identity, we will refer to this former employee as “Jane,” who worked in the billing department at Birmingham Water Works. She says the utility’s current billing problems were predictable and preventable. And she says employees in the billing department were routinely told to change billing dates on customers’ bills.

“Jane”: “We were asked to change readings often, because the checks and balances for billing customers were taken away from us.”

6 On Your Side Investigator Jonathan Hardison: “Even if they actually weren’t read or billed within that actual timeframe, employees would be told to change so that it appeared that they did?”

“Jane”: “That is correct. And that was a normal process, especially if that customer had not been billed within that month, two months, three months, four, five and up to nine or 12 months or whatever time period they had not received a bill. I often expressed concerns with leadership. I’ve also written emails, reported that it was a toxic environment to upper management, and it was not received well. After that, I felt I was being targeted on more than one occasion. Every day when I came in, I felt there was a new issue they were accusing me of, and it was never true.”

“Jane” says she was one of three billing department employees fired on December 1, 2021. She says each of them was accused by the Birmingham Water Works Board of falsifying documents. “Jane” says those allegations are untrue. Instead, she says they were simply following instructions from managers about procedures that she says were intentionally unclear.

“It was impossible to complete certain tasks, especially when the processes would change abruptly,” “Jane” says. “I felt that one person was told one thing, then another of the staff members were told something totally different. That’s when we requested something be given to us in writing so it would be clear and would not be questionable when they came back to us and said we were doing it incorrectly. That was never given to us in writing. This took place for over two years.”

“Jane” says she was not surprised to see our reports that started in February about customer billing problems. That report and other WBRC FOX6 News investigations revealed that thousands of customers had gone months without getting a bill.

In February, General Manager Michael Johnson told us, “We experienced a significant spike in COVID cases.”

Johnson told us in that same interview that several job vacancies also contributed to a staffing shortage.

“We fell behind in our meter reading. We are about 10 days behind,” Johnson said. “We check 10,000 meters a day and send out more than 200,000 bills per month. So, when you fall behind like that it’s a significant challenge to catch up,” Johnson said in that same February report.

In June, several Birmingham Water Works customers reached out to WBRC to complain they had not received a bill in months or suddenly got multiple bills on the same day. Johnson, in June, had this to say about the complaints, “During January and February, we estimated a little over 60,000 accounts each one of those months, and we’re at the point now where we’re probably about 13,000 accounts behind in the editing process that got us behind in December and January.”

Because of the employee shortages and the pandemic, Johnson said one-third of the residential water customer bills were estimated in January and February of this year. He also said the utility hoped to be caught back up and current by early Fall.

But that former employee, “Jane,” says there is no system in place for checks and balances. “This leadership did not communicate with the team. They didn’t see the need to. For some reason they believed this would miraculously correct itself. It would not correct itself when you do not have a team working together,” says “Jane.” “This could have been prevented months ago, years ago. But this problem has been accumulating for maybe three years now. It is evident that can be shown and proven that it wasn’t because so many employees had COVID-19, but it was because check and balance was removed, they fired three senior employees, and they attempted to hire other people into the department.”

“Jane” says she is coming forward because she is worried, not because she is disgruntled.

“I’m concerned with the state of the city, I’m concerned with the state of the county, and the state of the people that have been impacted by the decisions of leadership. Birmingham Water Works needs people that care about the company, that care about people. People that are not trying to advance their own status to position with the company, but people who really care about the people they’re billing. They need to care about them as individuals whether they’re seniors, families who are trying to provide for their families, they need people that care about people and that’s not what the company has. I’ve cried out for years, months for someone to stop this leadership team from negatively impacting so many of us. My voice was muzzled because of the strength of this toxic culture. They have impacted our community, our families, and the people that work hard to do the right thing. This problem is bigger than any of us can ever imagine.”

Other former employee says they “didn’t have a clear conscious”

WBRC FOX6 News has also obtained copies of emails that appear to be sent to members of the Birmingham Water Works management team from another employee we’ll call “Mary,” to protect her identity. According to a source, some of those same emails were also sent to human resources employees.

One of the emails dated December 29, 2021, appears to be sent to General Manager Michael Johnson among others. The message alleges that employees were being told to change billing dates and that some meters were not being read. The email was sent by “Mary” (not her real name), who says in that email she resigned the same day. In that email, “Mary” said she did not have a “clear conscious of what I am asked to do.”

This sequence of emails given to WBRC FOX6 News starts with one dated December 28, 2021, and appears to be sent to “Mary’s” supervisors. In it, “Mary” says, “As I learn more and more and try to become confident and comfortable in doing my job, I am finding it difficult to do this due to not having the supporting documentation to make the correct decisions. I feel I have to make decisions everyday now such as spreading consumption or bill reversals and I don’t feel I have anything to cover myself as to why I made that decision if it comes back up.”

“Mary” refers to a specific route in the email. She says there are 29 meters on the route: “Only about 5 good pics on this route I can use to make a solid informed decision.”

Another email dated the following day appears to have been sent to Birmingham Water Works Board Human Resources employees, as well as General Manager Michael Johnson. It says, in part, “I do not have peace when I walk into this office... My thing is I can tell these meters are not being read, this is accounting 100 percent. So at the end of the day I do not have a clear conscious of what I am asked to do spreading consumption every couple of months when I know that month the meter did just not get read. We are asked to change dates to make sure billing is 24-37 days and if that is not falsifying documents then I don’t know what is.”

We requested an interview with General Manager Michael Johnson. We wanted to give him the opportunity to respond to the allegations and provide an update on the billing issues.

We received this statement from Rick Jackson, Manager of Public Relations for Birmingham Water Works Board:

“As always, we refrain from discussing personnel matters. However, when employees raise concerns, we ensure their issues are addressed.

There are situations where we adjust billing dates to reconcile accounts based on actual meter readings. It is critical that these processes are followed to ensure the accuracy of customers’ bills.

We constantly provide training and guidance to our teams to reinforce processes. Our current team has received training on these same processes, and they have done an outstanding job of working through our billing backlog. Their efforts, along with our new bill design, have been instrumental in helping us as we return to normal operations.”

Click here to read other 6 On Your Side Investigates stories.