Editor’s Note: This is an installment in our occasional series, It’s Your Money, that looks more closely at public expenses that taxpayers may not realize they’re being asked to pay.

A contentious argument four years ago between a state airports office supervisor and her employees escalated so far, deputy sheriffs had to step in.

The supervisor, Lisa Matsuoka, was yelling at workers in her personnel office, demanding to know why one of them had requested a transfer out of the office.

Fearing for their safety, two of the employees, Donna Jinbo and Jennie Wolfe, filed a restraining order against Matsuoka in June 2008. Both employees had been with the Department of Transportation’s airports division for more than 20 years.

The situation got so bad, the department sectioned off portions of the office, mapping out designated work areas and even restricting which women’s bathrooms employees could use, to prevent any chance encounters.

Later, the two women would even lobby the Legislature for stronger workplace protection measures, an effort that was rejected by lawmakers earlier this year. Instead, taxpayers are footing the bill for Matsuoka’s actions.

A court ordered Matsuoka to stop harassing the employees, imposing a three-year injunction against harassment. She was suspended for five days, then transferred to another worksite to work on special assignments. The department said it arranged counseling and training to help her improve her behavior.

Matsuoka returned to the airports personnel office in April 2010.

Wolfe and Jinbo filed a lawsuit against the state and Matsuoka in response, alleging that Matsuoka’s reinstatement was retaliation for their reporting of workplace bullying.

“We had two choices, stay and work for this supervisor or transfer out of personnel,” Wolfe said in legislative testimony. “The only positions available were demotions with a substantial pay cut. DOT very cleverly declared that this was a voluntary transfer. If the transfer is involuntary, then we would have retained our present pay. In essence we were being punished.”

Jinbo, a personnel clerk, and Wolfe, an office assistant, chose to turn down the offered positions, and instead took sick leave and sought workers’ compensation benefits for emotional stress.

Their lawsuit alleged they endured repeated harassment and retaliation during the three years the injunction was in place. The state and Matsuoka were blamed for “violations of the Whistleblowers Protection Act and state and departmental workplace violence policies, and for intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

“We want to be able to go back to work in a place we’re not going to be attacked verbally every time we turn around, and at this point, we need some compensation for all the stress we’ve been through the past five years with her there,” Jinbo told Hawaii News Now in 2010.

Jinbo said in testimony this year that numerous incidents were reported to upper management, but they were never addressed. “The excuses I heard for not dealing with it were: No law has been broken; policy is not law; and it’s not against the law to be tactless,” Jinbo said.

The state denied any wrongdoing, but agreed to a settlement in November 2011. Jinbo and Wolfe each have been awarded $30,000 in damages.

The $60,000 settlement is included in pending legislation seeking to settle $7.6 million worth of claims against the state. Gov. Neil Abercrombie has already signed off on a separate measure to settle $5.8 million in overdue claims.

Matsuoka still works for the transportation department, but has since been transferred out of the airports division office to the DOT’s personnel office downtown. Jinbo and Wolfe have returned to work at the airports division office, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

In an effort to prevent similar workplace harassment cases, Jinbo and Wolfe this year spoke out in support of a proposed bill that aimed to “protect public employees from an abusive work environment and provide remedies when they are victims of abusive conduct of another public employee.”

The measure, however, was effectively killed by the Senate Ways and Means Committee early on in the session.

“The problem that my co-workers and I faced has essentially been resolved, but this bill — if it becomes law — will help future generations of workers,” Jinbo testified in support of the measure. “I believe that this bill will be instrumental in protecting all workers, equally, as a basic human right.”

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