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Visser workers quit in protest

A paperwork foul-up has cost the director of Visser Funeral Home her job and has led to the mass resignation of the staff at the Langley business.

Jenny Patty, the director of the funeral home, was fired last week after she helped a Langley family transport the remains of their 5½-year-old daughter to the Langley Cemetery for her funeral.

Patty’s former coworkers said her dismissal came after the family of the deceased called Visser to ask about services, but then decided to have an in-home memorial instead.

Two days before the funeral, a family member called Visser again to see if someone could be hired to drive a hearse to carry the young girl’s remains from her home to the cemetery.

Rosemary Isbell, office manager at Visser Funeral Home, said Patty then asked her supervisor, Jim Haddon, the manager of Burley Funeral Chapel in Oak Harbor, if it would be OK to assist the family.

“He said, oh yes, absolutely,” Isbell said, recalling how Haddon had said it should be done as a no-cost-to-the-family community service.

Trouble arose a few days after the March 18 funeral, when a county employee began asking about the burial transit permit and death certificate for the young girl, who died at home March 15 of brain cancer.

Isbell said the family had never been told about the paperwork, not by hospice workers who were assisting the family or by anyone at city hall when the family purchased the plot at the Langley Cemetery. Instead, Patty was blamed, though she was only the driver of the hearse.

“Why does it end with her?” Isbell asked.

Isbell and the other employees at Visser quit in protest after Patty was fired, she said.

“The day that they terminated Jenny I gave my two weeks notice,” Isbell said.

“It’s a moral issue for me. It’s just not ethical,” she said.

Haddon, Patty’s supervisor, declined to talk about the termination.

“There’s more to the story,” Haddon said. “And that’s all I can really say.”

Haddon directed inquiries to his supervisor, who did not immediately return calls from the Record.

Visser is owned by Service Corporation International, better known by its brand-name Dignity Memorial, a Texas-based corporation that operates more than 1,500 funeral homes across the country.

Former Visser employees said Patty’s firing was an overreaction from higher-ups in the corporation, and said the complaint about missing paperwork was resolved and Patty was exonerated by the state Funeral and Cemetery Board.

“Corporate America strikes Langley,” said Joe Freia, one of the employees who quit.

Patty said she was fired a few days after she was given a week’s suspension.

She said she had no involvement in the child’s funeral other than driving the family and the casket carrying the girl’s remains to the cemetery.

“I think I only said three words to them: ‘I’m so sorry.’”

Patty also recalled asking her supervisor for permission before agreeing to help the family.

“He said it was a good idea,” she said.

Patty said the first she heard there was a problem was when Barbara Cope, the vital statistics registrar for Island County, called and began asking for paperwork.

“I didn’t know anything was wrong until Barbara Cope called me. She was very upset, you could tell, and wanted to know if we had a death certificate,” Patty said. “I said, ‘Of course not, we didn’t take care of the family.’”

Cope declined to talk about the incident.

“I’m really not interested in commenting on that,” Cope said.

When asked why she would not comment, she said: “I don’t want any more hardship for the family. They just lost their little girl.”

Public records obtained through a public records  request show that Cope continued to press for the missing paperwork after she had talked to Visser employees, and she e-mailed Island County Coroner Robert Bishop on March 29 to say that her office had not been contacted about the death, that a death certificate had not been completed, and that no one had gotten a burial transit permit. She told Bishop she would ask Patty to fill out the death certificate, but have the family listed as the funeral director.

Patty said she helped the father of the girl fill out the death certificate.

The family of the girl declined requests for an interview.

Patty was later suspended and then fired for transporting the remains to the cemetery, though Patty emphasized that the county and state found no instances of wrongdoing on her part.

Patty also said that she assumed someone else assisting the family would have sought the necessary transit permit, since state law requires that the person or funeral home taking responsibility for the body is charged with getting the permit, and neither she nor Visser ever had possession of the remains.

Now Patty, who moved to Whidbey after the death of her husband Jim in 2004, is facing another dilemma. Her employer was also her landlord, and she has been given 20 days to move out of their residence next to the funeral home on Third Street.

“My family is in shock. This was our home,” she said Monday as she continued to box up her belongings.

She said she wants to stay on Whidbey, since her five children are immersed in South End schools, and added that she felt bad for the employees who quit because of the way she was treated.

“I know they all loved their jobs. It’s a hard time, the economy is bad,” she added.

Patty said she has also heard that her former employers have been spreading misinformation about her departure, and it underscores the impression she now has of Dignity Memorial.

“They don’t seem to have much dignity,” she said.

Haddon said services at Visser Funeral Home would not be impacted by the changeover in staff.

New hires would be made, but Haddon declined to talk about them Tuesday.

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