Oregon workplace civil rights agency faces accusations of pervasive racism

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The Oregon government has few people of color in leadership positions, so it was remarkable that the state labor office hired Carol Johnson, who is African-American, to lead its civil rights division in July 2019.

As a seasoned civil rights lawyer who previously headed the Arkansas Fair Housing Commission, Johnson arrived with clear good faith for her work in Oregon. Still, Johnson says she quickly encountered resistance from her subordinates, including the white male civil rights officials who worked for her. They denigrated her knowledge and experience and refused to follow her directions, she said in court records.

When Johnson raised concerns about the behavior to Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle and Deputy Labor Commissioner Duke Shepard in the fall of 2019, they told Johnson that most black professionals only last a few years in the industry. Oregon, according to a complaint filed by Johnson on April 30 in the Multnomah County Circuit. Search.

In response to the complaint filed Friday, attorneys for the office denied that Hoyle and Shepard made the statement to Johnson and denied that Johnson’s subordinates in the Civil Rights Division disparaged her or refused to follow her instructions. Hoyle also released a statement, noting that she hired a “neutral third party investigator” with the Stoel Rives law firm in August to investigate how Johnson was treated.

“We are awaiting the conclusion and the report,” Hoyle said. “I cannot comment on the details of this case due to the ongoing investigation and legal proceedings except to say that my office fully supports a thorough and transparent process to get to the root of these important issues. “

Office spokeswoman Anne Marie Levis said of Hoyle and Shepard’s alleged comments to Johnson: “This is Ms Johnson’s version of events. We therefore look forward to the results of the independent and transparent investigation. “

In the 10 months after Johnson first reported workplace concerns to her bosses, Hoyle and Shepard have not backed her up, she claims, as she worked to improve treatment by the Oregon Worker Complaints Office regarding discrimination. They “gave Johnson no authority to reprimand or discipline staff for work inadequacies or insubordination, undermining (Johnson’s) credibility and leaving her vulnerable to further discriminatory targeting and harassment,” according to the lawsuit.

This is the second time in five years that a senior African-American civil rights lawyer from an Oregon government agency has alleged racial discrimination. Erious Johnson, the state Department of Justice’s senior civil rights lawyer, was tracked by an investigator from his own agency using a monitoring tool to monitor people who posted the Black hashtag Lives Matter on social media and received a settlement of $ 205,000 after accusing the agency of racism. .

After workers at the Labor Office complained to Shepard that Johnson had changed case handling protocols, Shepard told Johnson he could fire her at any time, according to the lawsuit.

Lawyers for the office also deny the allegations, according to documents filed by the court.

Johnson’s lawsuit claims his civil rights were violated due to racial discrimination by the very state employees who were responsible for protecting the civil rights of all workers in Oregon.

In early 2020, the agency’s work in this area was called into question amid scrutiny of its mismanagement of a workplace racial discrimination complaint by Michael Fesser, a black employee of a Portland auto towing company who was arrested after complaining of racial discrimination at work. Some of Fesser’s colleagues called him racial epithets and one asked how he liked a Confederate flag affixed to this worker’s van, The Oregonian / OregonLive reported. In February 2017, West Linn Police arrested Fesser at the behest of Fesser’s boss, who was a fishing buddy of West Linn Police Chief Terry Timeus.

Fesser filed a discrimination complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the Bureau of Labor and Industries in May 2017, but records obtained by The Oregonian / OregonLive revealed that a senior investigator dismissed Fesser’s case after only one review. superficial. Johnson said in February 2020 TV interview that said she was “devastated” to learn that the office had not helped Fesser. “We want to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again,” Johnson told KATU.

The town of West Linn eventually made arrangements with Fesser for his wrongful arrest. And in February 2020, a day before Johnson criticized the agency’s work, Hoyle said his agency failed Fesser and that “we will make changes to our job.”

Hoyle tweeted that Fesser’s case was “one of the many reasons I hired a nationally respected civil rights lawyer, (Carol Johnson), to lead the civil rights division of this agency.” It has already made a lot of changes and has improved our work since it started in 2019. ”

Johnson’s trial details her experiences with what she says is the racist treatment and actions of his subordinates at the agency.

In early November 2019, Johnson sponsored a ‘Comprehensive Civil Rights Investigation Training’ which included the concept of implicit bias, which refers to the assumptions people make about other people, often without realizing they do. “Several Caucasian staff were antagonistic and disrespectful to a very experienced African-American presenter,” according to Johnson’s lawsuit. Johnson voiced his concerns about the incident to agency executives “but no action has been taken to address his concerns about racial micro-attacks.”

After Johnson engaged in the February 2020 television interview on Fesser’s case to review the treatment by the Office of Civil Rights Affairs, investigators in the division openly opposed her and “denounced her to management of BOLI with the aim of negatively affecting his employment, ”according to Johnson’s lawsuit.

In May 2020, Johnson sent Hoyle and Shepard a memorandum detailing her concerns that her subordinates were racially discriminating against her and calling for an immediate investigation. She also lodged a complaint with the Federal Commission for Equal Employment Opportunities.

Johnson learned in June 2020 that an office investigator had filed a “chief bully” complaint about him with SEIU 503, according to the lawsuit. Ben Morris, union communications director, confirmed the union received two complaints about Johnson around this time, but said staff and members decided not to pursue any action because the complaints did not identify the violations by management of the union contract or unfair labor practices.

On June 25, 2020, Johnson received a packet of feces sent anonymously to his home. The next day, employees in the Civil Rights division conducted an employee survey “in another effort to further discredit Ms Johnson’s authority and negatively affect her employment,” according to the lawsuit.

Johnson informed office leaders on July 3 that she would resign from her post “due to continuing, harsh, pervasive and unrelenting discriminatory working conditions,” her lawyer wrote.

Nearly two weeks later, Hoyle texted staff stating, “I will not let disingenuous concerns about the ‘process’ be used to cover up anti-Black biases in our workplace. No one has raised the issue of the qualifications of a white official (civil rights division) with no more than a high school diploma, but I have to hear about the concerns of black employees to be employed at (division of civil rights) civil rights). It’s wrong.”

The next day, Johnson learned that investigators in the Civil Rights Division had complained about her again to office executives, this time because Johnson had hired three black investigators, the lawsuit says. Investigators called it “cronyism,” according to the lawsuit, even though Johnson “had no previous relationship with these new investigators, their only commonality being race.”

On July 21, 2020, Hoyle posted an announcement titled “Carol Johnson’s Resignation and Racism in Our Workplace” in which Hoyle acknowledged that Johnson’s resignation was due to racism in the workplace and stated that ” the reports on action taken against Carol that we have received are serious and deeply disturbing, ”according to the lawsuit.

None of the Civil Rights employees who allegedly subjected Johnson to discriminatory treatment have been penalized because “the allegations are unfounded,” Levis said.

Through his lawyer Diane Sykes, Johnson declined to comment for this story. She now works as the director of civil rights for the city of Austin, according to the Linkedin site. She claims $ 17,000 in economic damages and $ 2.3 million in non-economic damages.

– Hillary Borrud; [email protected]; @hborrud





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