An army of complaints

"Major" gripes follow a Salvation Army official.

Since Michael Zielinski took over managerial responsibilities for the Portland area's nine Salvation Army stores last summer, four managers have left.

While the Salvation Army says this type of turnover for nine stores is routine (three managers left the previous year), the managers who departed since Zielinski took over say the way they've been treated is not standard.

"I would still be working there if it wasn't for him," says James Wilson, who commuted by bus to manage the Army's Milwaukie store for about a year before leaving in January. "I put up with being on the bus for four hours a day because I loved my was devastating for me to leave."

Customers also have noticed the changes.

"It's worse than it has been in a long time,'' says Bonnie Messinger, a Salvation Army shopper for the past 14 years. "Employee morale has been really lousy. They're just not treated well."

The employee unhappiness fits a pattern from Zielinski's previous posting in California as a major in the 142-year-old Christian organization that offers services from drug rehab to shelter for domestic-violence victims. (Ministers of the Salvation Army are given a quasi-military rank based on the amount of training received.) In Santa Monica, employees signed two petitions to the human-resources manager complaining about Zielinski.

"This is not [just] a case of a bad boss," says Eva Bickford, who managed the Albany store (which the Army considers part of its Portland area) for three years before leaving in January. "I've been in bad-boss situations and...I've always been able to tell my side of it, and here they don't ask your side. They demoralize you."

Bickford, Wilson and a third store manager—Debbie Johnson, who managed the Army's Beaverton store—say Zielinski unfairly piled on work, didn't provide them with the resources to do it and degraded them in front of employees. (The fourth ex-manager could not be reached for comment.)

"He made everybody look over their shoulder," says Bickford, who sought medical assistance for her anxiety on the job. "When I went to the doctors they said I was having panic attacks. They put me on medication and advised me to find another job."

The three ex-managers also say Zielinski implemented retail policies that caused their stores to lose revenue, money that's used to support the Army's drug-rehab programs. Bickford and Johnson estimated the revenue declines at 20 to 30 percent. Sales losses in Milwaukie were more dramatic, Wilson says, estimating declines from 40 to 60 percent.

Zielinski, 42, an officer with the Salvation Army for 21 years, strongly denies the former employees' allegations of losses. He says store sales rose 13 percent.

As for allegations that Zielinski is a bullying boss, Major Michael Dossey, Zielinski's boss at the Army's headquarters in Long Beach, Calif., says Zielinski's style is "matter-of-fact." Dossey says some interpret that approach as being aggressive. Zielinski says his size (5-foot-11 and 230 pounds), coupled with what he called a "direct approach," might be tough for some.

"It is a challenge because I do have intensity," Zielinski says.

Wilson and Johnson, like many Army workers, have been through the Army's addiction rehab program. They say starting out clean and sober is tough enough without having to deal with a boss like Zielinski.

Fear of losing their jobs and being left with "absolutely nothing" is why current employees won't go on record with similar complaints, they say.

"The major counts on that. He counts on our weakness," says Johnson, who is now working as an apartment manager.

Zielinski and his wife, Janene, get an annual compensation package of $66,713, according to the Salvation Army. That includes $34,449 in pay, $28,969 in a housing allowance and $3,294 to lease a vehicle. The Salvation Army won't provide store-manager salaries. But Johnson says she earned $8.50 an hour, which would work out to $17,680 a year for a 40-hour work week.

Zielinski was stationed for three years in Santa Monica before coming to Portland. One of the two employee petitions there complaining about Zielinski was signed by at least a dozen people. They said Major Zielinski "is creating the worst job environment we ever had," and that he threatened them "like a dog and animal."

Both Zielinski and Dossey say they met with the Santa Monica employees but that policies weren't changed because the employees couldn't provide any specifics. Similar complaints have surfaced in Portland, but the ex-managers say no petition has developed because it's so hard to come forward in the first place.

"The Salvation Army as a whole is a wonderful organization," says Wilson. "I think that Major Zielinski has fought, crawled and bit his way to the top. And I think a lot of people above him don't really know who he is. And people are afraid to say anything."