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Monday, August 10, 2009

Workplace Retaliation: Employers Go From Dumb to Dumber

You often hear it said that America is plagued with too many lawsuits.

These complaints usually come from "conservatives," who claim that undeserving plaintiffs file lawsuits that are unmeritorious or downright frivolous.

But you rarely hear about the other side of the coin. How many lawsuits come from problems that businesses or institutions easily could have prevented, or solved, short of the courtroom?

Such a case is unfolding now in California--although there is a Deep South connection to it. The case happens to be in the realm of employment law, and it raises this question: Just how stupid can employers be?

Two female employees fired from the Department of Veterans Affairs' Oakland Regional Center say their dismissals were in retaliation for their speaking up against anti-gay harassment and a hostile working environment. Writes the Bay Area Reporter:

The allegations range from coworkers sabotaging their performance records to threats of violence against one of the women who is an out lesbian and once served as mayor of the East Bay city of Pinole.

The former coworkers have both filed claims against the federal agency with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's San Francisco District Office. They are seeking reinstatement to comparable jobs within the VA's bureaucracy and back pay since the time of their firing last summer.

Lillian "Ann" Williams, 59, and Jamie Fox, 40, encountered problems almost immediately once they started working for the VA in November 2007.

Williams, who is openly gay, and Fox, who is straight, were hired by the VA as veterans service representatives and tasked with reviewing disability claims filed by veterans. During their six months of training the two women said that a male coworker continuously harassed Williams and poisoned other people's opinion of her.

Williams, who grew up in Columbus, Mississippi and served in the U.S. Navy, retains a Southern accent. That apparently helped spark her problems at the VA center:

The two said that shortly after they were hired a lunch conversation between them and the male coworker, who is Japanese American, about the nationality of a group of Asian coworkers devolved into his making fun of Williams's southern accent.

"I felt bullied," recalled Williams, who grew up in Columbus, Mississippi and served in the Navy. "I apologized to him later that day and said I didn't mean to offend you."

But within a few weeks Williams said people at work stopped talking to her and she noticed files would go missing from her desk or important paperwork would be buried under stacks of claims to be processed.

"This guy infected other people behind my back," said Williams.

Fox quickly noticed the ill treatment Williams was receiving:

"Basically, when Ann was around this man he physically didn't want to be in her presence. The other team members pretended Ann wasn't there," said Fox, who spent five years in the Navy. "She was pretty much shunned."

The abuse escalated to the point that during a February training session held in Arkansas, another female worker told Fox that Williams was "the kind of girl who should be taken in the locker room, wrapped in a towel and beaten."

Bruce Choy, another employee hired at the same time as Fox and Williams, also saw the mistreatment:

"They would call her a dyke, things like that. I guess she had an opinion and some of the people were offended by that," said Choy, an Army veteran who was recently fired by the VA. "My sense of it is she was a target. She is older, she is white, she speaks with an accent like out of the Deep South. They know she is also lesbian. All those things sort of held against her."

Because of the threats of violence, Williams wrote a memo to her supervisor, likening her situation to the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was beaten to death in Laramie, Wyoming.

The supervisor said there would be no investigation. And when Fox stood up for Williams, she received the same response.

After Williams filed a complaint with the EEOC, she was transferred to a different position and told that her performance was poor--and then fired. After standing up for Williams, Fox also was told that her performance was poor. Expecting to be fired any day, Fox chose to resign.

And what about the VA's own policies? The Bay Area Reporter writes:

According to the VA's own guidelines, it has "zero tolerance" for harassment, which does include sexual orientation. The policy also states the VA does not tolerate "retaliatory actions based on opposition to discrimination or participation in the discrimination complaint process."

The guidelines stress that supervisors "must take prompt and immediate action" when informed of alleged harassment. The policy also states that the complainant "should not be involuntarily transferred" because doing so could "constitute unlawful retaliation and are not effective in correcting the harassment."

How badly did the VA butcher this situation? It tolerated harassment, ignored complaints of unlawful behavior, practiced retaliation, violated its own policies repeatedly . . .

Gosh, sounds like my experience at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) all over again.

Now the VA is facing a probable lawsuit for discrimination based on sexual orientation--in the San Francisco area. That's real smart. Think there might be a few gay folks in a potential jury pool? Think the VA might get nailed big time? Let's hope so.

Of course, you shouldn't have to be gay to grasp the blatant retaliation present in this case. And as a resident of Alabama, I find it intriguing that a Southern accent helped spark harassment in California.

The Bay Area Reporter looks at the larger issue of anti-gay harassment in the workplace:

Jennifer C. Pizer, senior counsel for Lambda Legal's Western Regional Office, said Williams's case is representative of what many LGBT people face in the workplace.

"The sad reality for LGBT people is even in places like California with very strong anti-discrimination laws, people often have difficulty getting along with different people," said Pizer. "People who are different or seen as other often are the target for unhappy coworkers with low self-esteem who like to take their unhappiness with themselves out on other people. It is a pervasive problem in American society and LGBT people are at the receiving end of a grossly disproportionate amount of other people's mean spiritedness."

Is there anything positive to take from this story? Well, it shows that ignorance in the workplace is not limited to the Deep South.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


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