Two Bartlett Regional Hospital employees say their supervisor physically assaulted them and that they’ve lost their jobs because of the incident. The supervisor, meanwhile, was later cleared by the hospital’s Human Resources department and allowed to keep his job.
Don Irvis and John Heritscko worked for Rainforest Recovery Center, a BRH facility that helps people with substance abuse and drug addiction. They filed a police report against their supervisor, Charles Mike Huelsman, prompting a police investigation.
Both men say Huelsman assaulted them at different times during the work day March 20, they told the Empire. Irvis says Huelsman raised a hand to him and then “chest bumped” him out of his office, while Heritscko says Huelsman threw a pen at him later that day during a heated argument. Huelsman, 59, denies assaulting either of them and told the hospital he was the one who felt threatened, going so far as to secure a protective order against one of the men.
Juneau police forwarded the case to the city attorney’s office a month ago. Since charges are yet to be brought against Huelsman, the former coworkers are now worried the city is siding with BRH and “sweeping the case under the rug.”
“They’re trying to cover it up,” Heritscko said in an interview.
The city attorney’s office said it is still looking at the case.
The claims aren’t the first time the city-owned hospital has come under fire for claims of a hostile work environment. Two investigations have been conducted since 2010. Each time the claims were unsubstantiated, according to the hospital, although no documents related to the investigations were ever released despite numerous requests from the Juneau Empire.
The first incident involving Irvis, a 46-year-old who has worked at Rainforest for the past five years, began over a misunderstanding about the work schedule. Irvis had requested two Saturdays off in March so he could work those days at his part-time job as a weather observer for the Federal Aviation Administration. He said he made those requests in January and got two people at the hospital to cover his shifts, but discovered later that his request didn’t process in the BRH computer system.
Irvis said he received a text message from a coworker four days before that first scheduled day off on March 15, saying that Huelsman was mad at him because no one was covering his shift. Confused, Irvis said he called Huelsman to see what was going on. Irvis said the two talked it out in a professional manner and everything was fine.
The next morning, Irvis said he was called into Huelsman’s office and told he hadn’t put in the leave request like he’d insisted. Irvis said he reiterated that the request was made in January, but that rather than arguing he went to the watch station (where the nurses and EMTs work) to check the system log for himself.
Huelsman was right; the date wasn’t listed. Irvis immediately put in a call to the scheduler, who said he would get back to him that afternoon about what was going on.
Irvis said he then went back to Huelsman’s office and told him the request wasn’t scheduled but that the scheduler would be getting back to him with some answers soon.
According to Irvis, that’s when the conversation went sour. Huelsman had more to say about the prior night’s conversation.
“He says, ‘If you ever call me and speak to me the way you did, I will have your ass,’” Irvis recalled Huelsman telling him. “It caught me so off-guard, it was kind of like a ‘Scooby Doo’ moment, kind of like ‘Huh?’”
Irvis asked him what he was talking about, and Huelsman told him that he did not appreciate the “disrespect” and yelling during their earlier phone conversation. Irvis said he was confused and asked him what he was talking about. Then, Irvis said Huelsman interrupted him and told him to never do it again and, “If I have to deal with this **** again, I will take your ass to HR.”
“Once I said, ‘Fine, we’ll go to HR and we’ll deal with it over there,’ that’s when he lost it,” Irvis said. “Mike (Huelsman) stood up, and he just said, you know, ‘**** you, **** you.’ And I said, ‘You know what? **** you, too.’”
Irvis said that led to Huelsman putting his fist up to his face and Irvis responded by saying, “Go ahead, hit me.” Irvis said at that point Huelsman “barrel chested” him and then “shoulder bumped me out” of his office.
Upset, Irvis said he went back to the watch station and told another coworker that he wouldn’t believe what just happened. He then called his partner, who advised him to leave work for the day. Irvis called the nurse supervisor and told her he was leaving without giving an explanation.
“Putting a fist in my face is one thing,” Irvis said, “but when he chest bumped me and shoulder-jerked me out of his office, with all the profanity, I thought that was a bit much.”
Later that evening, Irvis received a phone call from coworker John Heritscko, who said he just had a similar encounter with their boss.
“I got a call from John ... and he told me what happened to him, and he said, ‘Do you want to go to JPD?” Irvis said.
Irvis told Heritscko he wanted to file assault charges and to meet him at JPD in an hour.
“We gave statements and it all just sort of ceased from there,” he said. “Nothing happened. I still haven’t received a call from an attorney. I still haven’t received a phone call from anyone. It was like no one was really interested in pursuing this.”
Heritscko, a 53-year-old who has worked at Rainforest for several years, said he was called into Huelsman’s office on March 20 to discuss a conflict between Heritscko and another coworker. Heritscko said Huelsman pointed his finger at him accusingly during the meeting and said, “You, you, you,” and threw a pen that hit the outside corner of his eye.
What happened after made Heritscko even more upset. He said he was going to clock out but Huelsman blocked him in the doorway and stood with his chest puffed out. Heritscko said he had to push through Huelsman to clock out.
“He then jumped in my way, when I turned to the watch station (location of terminal to punch out),” Heritscko wrote in a letter to the hospital. “He again ordered me to punch out, while standing in my way with his chest bowed, (did not back up, or go past me on the side where the terminal was not). He stood there taunting me until I told him he needed to move. He then pushed between said terminal and myself (when there was plenty other room otherwise). This is what I told Ms. (Mila) Cosgrove, and is confirmed by the video.”
Huelsman did not comment when reached by phone on Friday.
“No, no, no, no, you’ll have to go through HR. Thank you, bye,” he said before hanging up.
BRH human resources director Mila Cosgrove provided letters written to Irvis and Heritscko that told a much different version of events.
Regarding the first allegation, Huelsman maintains Irvis was “reading him the riot act” during their phone conversation about the schedule change, and the next morning Irvis said things like, “You’ve been out to get my black ass since you got here. I’m going to get you and this hospital.” Huelsman maintains he did not raise a hand, chest bump or shoulder bump Irvis. Rather, Huelsman said when he asked Irvis to leave, Irvis brushed up against him with his shoulder.
Regarding the second allegation involving Heritscko, Huelsman said he started the conversation in his office by saying he didn’t want it to be a yelling match and noted that “big guys can be intimidating,” referring to Heritscko’s large build. Huelsman said that’s when Heritscko became upset and started yelling. He said he asked Heritscko to clock out for the day and that they would discuss it the next day. Huelsman said he watched as Heritscko left the watch station and went into the hallway, but Heritscko turned around and yelled in his face, saying something to the effect of, “You need to remember who your friends are.”
Both Irvis and Heritscko dispute those versions of events.
Cosgrove said in a letter to Heritscko that video surveillance footage of the hospital’s hallway captured some of the incident and corroborates Huelsman’s story. Heritscko argues that it doesn’t but said he hasn’t been allowed to view the footage despite requests.
When asked to release the video to the Empire, BRH spokesman Jim Strader said he doesn’t know anything about the footage or the existence of a tape. The Empire will submit a public records request to obtain the footage.
Huelsman petitions the court
The day after the incident, Huelsman petitioned for a 20-day stalking protective order against both of the employees, saying they assaulted him. Even though there was no allegation of stalking or any pattern of harassment — there was just the single act of assault, in Huelsman’s eyes — Huelsman told the judge he wanted the orders to keep the two away from himself and his family while the matter is being investigated.
“These were both what I consider — I was their friend,” he said in court. “This truly is ridiculous what’s come about.”
In his petition to Juneau District Court Judge Keith Levy, Huelsman said Heritscko jumped on his desk during the meeting in his office and that he was “rather hysterical at the time.” He told the judge that Heritscko has made threats of violence in the workplace before and he’s had one prior behavioral issue with Heritscko.
BRH said in letters that Heritscko was written up before for poor workplace behavior — he was rated “unsatisfactory” in the areas of “Courtesy, Accountability and Respect.” Heritscko said he reversed his actions following the grievance, and administrators determined there were no findings of aggression or violence, which he notes BRH left out of their letter.
Huelsman said he didn’t have any previous problems with Irvis.
Huelsman did not mention that the two employees accused him of assault, although he did say he was suspended along with the other two from the hospital for the time being.
Judge Levy granted the 20-day order against Heritscko, based on Huelsman’s statements, but denied the identical request against Irvis.
When Heritscko found out about the stalking order, he moved to dissolve it. He said that Huelsman lied by providing false information and lied by omission for not informing the court that he was being investigated for assault. The 20-day order expired before the judge could rule on the motion, making it moot.
After March 20, all three people involved were immediately suspended from work and placed on administrative leave as the hospital’s human resources department launched an investigation. BRH called each of them in separately to hear their side of the story in order to conduct a “prompt, full and fair investigation,” as a letter from HR director Cosgrove promised.
“It was anything but fair,” Irvis said in a later interview.
Irvis said they had already made up their mind by the time he was in the room to side with Huelsman. Heritscko said the same thing.
The BRH investigation concluded that Irvis and Heritscko engaged in misconduct and furthermore, lied during the HR investigation, according to the letters they received.
Heritscko was fired outright. Irvis was given the option to attend a pre-discliplinary hearing that could result in dismissal. Irvis instead handed in his resignation that day.
BRH spokesman Strader confirmed Huelsman was still employed.
Cosgrove would not comment about the investigation when reached by the Empire this week. Strader said the hospital can’t comment because it’s a personnel matter.
“I’m sorry but the rules are very, very clear about personnel issues, that we just do not discuss them publicly,” Strader said. “It’s not a flexible rule at all.”
City Attorney Amy Mead said she was not aware of the case’s status as of Friday afternoon.
“The prosecutor who is assigned to that case is out of office today,” she said. “As far as I can tell, she is looking at it. I don’t know if she’s finished her review and made a decision or not, so I can’t (speak) to that. But it’s in our office and being looked at.”
Irvis said he resigned just days before he would have received his pension. March 27 would have been his fifth anniversary. But it wasn’t worth it to stay on just for a week longer, he said.
“There’s five years at the hospital, all down the drain,” he said.
Irvis said he has a theory about why things played out as they did. He said that BRH has been trying to fire Heritscko for years for “various little things,” especially because Huelsman, who was hired a little more than two years ago, wanted to hire his own people. Irvis speculated that this opportunity arose and the hospital seized on it to get rid of him. And he happened to be right there in the middle of it.
“They’ve lumped us both together,” Irvis said. “I thought they wanted me back, but I thought there’s no way I’m going back there. I was working toward my pension. March 27 was my five years, and this happened three, four days before that. I even said to (the person I gave my resignation to) that I cannot believe that it went this far, that you guys were so willing to get rid of John that you threw me under the bus.”
Irvis said he is now taking more hours at his FAA job.
Heritscko said he is still job searching while appealing the hospital’s decision.
“The allegations are incorrect and are not supported by the evidence gathered by Mila Cosgrove (Human Resources); and her staff,” he wrote to the hospital. “Ms. Cosgrove’s bias is evident in statements she makes, which are not supported by tape recordings of the interviews she identified as source material.”
He writes in his appeal that he wants to be reinstated in his position with all back pay since the incident, a letter of apology, placement on night shift to avoid perceived communication issues, no supervision by Huelsman, no reprisal and a change in the hospital’s HR representative.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at email@example.com.