An Oregon agency that’s been strained by the pandemic and harangued for service delays is now grappling with a different problem in its own workplace: allegations of discrimination.

Leaders at the Oregon Employment Department have brought in an outside law firm to investigate a discrimination claim at the new paid family and medical leave program.

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And the agency recently settled another case: It involved an employee in a different division whose Black Lives Matter sign and other belongings were ripped from her cubicle walls and destroyed.

Catherine Branch, who is Black, said she repeatedly encountered prejudice at the agency. She resigned in January.

“I shouldn’t have to be dealing with all that in a workplace,” Branch said. “All the racism.”

Acting agency director David Gerstenfeld said the new discrimination investigation won’t further delay the rollout of the state’s not-yet-operational paid leave program, which fell months behind schedule in the pandemic. And he pledged to bring in equity and inclusion experts to examine both the paid leave program and agency practices more broadly.

“Equity and inclusion is not optional at our agency,” Gerstenfeld said. “It’s core to what we do.”

That’s the goal. But Gerstenfeld personally sought out Branch after she had a very different experience of the agency last summer.

‘That’s when it started… the racism’

Think back to the summer of 2020. It was a turbulent time at the Employment Department. Employees were under tremendous strain, trying to serve a record number of unemployed Oregonians.

The agency had hired hundreds of new staff to process an immense backlog of pandemic unemployment claims.

The sheer number of new hires changed — and sometimes challenged — dynamics on staff.

Esther Harlow was one of the new employees.

At the agency’s contact center in Wilsonville, Harlow trained to be an adjudicator — someone who investigates claims with eligibility issues.

She hung a Black Lives Matter sign outside her cubicle, facing the walkway. She didn’t expect it to be tampered with.

After all, the head of the agency had recently expressed support for ending systemic racism.

Gerstenfeld had emailed agency staff after the murder of George Floyd, telling them racism had no place at work.

“I want your help in making us part of the solution and not part of the problem,” he wrote. “It means that each of us demonstrates our core values of integrity, respect, and community everyday by ensuring that no forms of racism or discrimination are tolerated in our agency and communities.”

Harlow, who describes herself as white and Mexican, said Black Lives Matter is a core belief. She cares deeply, she said, for Black family members and friends.

But at work, someone started messing with her Black Lives Matter sign when she wasn’t there.

“I would come in and it would be flipped over so you couldn’t see it.” Harlow said.

That happened several times. One day, Harlow said, the sign was flipped over in the morning. After lunch, it was flipped over again.

Branch was Harlow’s neighbor in the cubicle suite, and she was also trying to become an adjudicator. She put up her own Black Lives Matter sign.

Branch had been a cashier at WinCo Foods before the pandemic. A cancer survivor, she went to work at the Employment Department to shield herself from the public. She thought she’d have less exposure to COVID-19 in an office. And she was excited about the opportunity.

But Branch said she began experiencing bias at the agency during the social justice protests sparked by Floyd’s murder.

“That’s when it first started,” she said. “The racism.”

Branch worried that vandalism in downtown Portland might inflame prejudice against her, a Black employee in a predominantly white office. She heard about protesters smashing shop windows on the news. So one day, she decided to bring the receipt for her new tennis shoes to work in case someone questioned where she got them.

Then, she said, someone did.

“My white co-worker, she said, ‘Where’d you get those shoes? Where did you get those shoes?’ And she asked me like three or four times,” Branch said.

Branch said she produced her receipt and the co-worker wrote down the information, saying she liked the shoes.

But Branch felt she had been accused of theft. She said she reported the incident to her supervisor but was shaken by that supervisor’s response.

“We were in an office with the doors closed,” Branch recalled. “She said, ‘To be honest with you, my dad is a racist. And I have to decide every day which side to be on.’”

OPB reached out to the agency for comment on this incident, but didn’t hear back before publication.

‘I can do what I want’

At their cubicle suite, Branch and Harlow talked about social justice. In addition to her Black Lives Matter sign, Branch put up a picture of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Harlow posted Gerstenfeld’s email about racial injustice.

On Friday, Aug. 14, Branch took the day off.

When Harlow came to work that day, she found the outside of their cubicles stripped bare.

In an internal complaint filed the same day, Harlow reported that two colleagues had witnessed a woman tearing down one of her signs and crumpling it up. Harlow identified the woman as Shari Collins, a 22-year veteran of the agency.

Harlow said her colleagues were upset that Branch’s workspace, in particular, had been targeted. They printed new Black Lives Matter signs and began putting them up.

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That’s when, Harlow said, she saw Collins stand and hold up her phone, apparently taking pictures or filming them. Employment Department policy forbids photos in the workplace, to protect the confidential information of people seeking unemployment benefits.

Harlow said she told Collins to stop.

“‘I can do what I want,’” Collins responded, according to Harlow.

When Branch returned, she felt angry. She felt disappointed in the culture of the agency. At the time, Collins sat just feet away, and Branch said she worried what she’d do next.

“This white woman, she stands up there after she did it … and boldly says, ‘I can do whatever I want to do,’” Branch said. “Well, that’s some doggone white supremacy right there. You know? Because I can’t do whatever I want to do.”

Both Branch and Harlow filed complaints with the agency’s human resources department. They later filed complaints that went to both the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. OPB has viewed those complaints, as well as Harlow’s internal complaint. The accounts given in those documents are consistent with what the women told OPB.

The Employment Department’s HR investigation found that Collins had “removed and destroyed the Black Lives Matter posters and other racial equality information” from Branch and Harlow’s desks. It also found she violated agency policy by taking pictures at work.

The agency hand-delivered a letter of reprimand to Collins in October 2020, calling her actions “frightening, intimidating and disrespectful to OED employees.” Collins signed the letter to indicate receipt, but not necessarily agreement.

The Employment Department later provided that letter to OPB.

OPB tried several times to speak with Shari Collins for her perspective.

When first reached by phone one evening last week, Collins declined to comment on the claims, saying she wasn’t comfortable. But she stayed on the line.

A man joined the call as well, identifying himself as her husband, Brian Keller. He indicated that his wife had removed her colleagues’ Black Lives Matter signs because they were political messaging that was inappropriate at work.

“She was well within her rights at the time,” Keller said.

When OPB asked Collins if she had photographed her colleagues putting up more Black Lives Matter signs, there was a pause.

The husband responded: He believed she did, to protect herself.

Reached by phone and email this week, Collins again declined to provide substantive responses. She requested a list of questions, which she did not answer. But in an email, she pointed to policies that restrict the political activities of state workers while on the job.

“As you should know the BLM Movement is a political movement that doesn’t hesitate using violence and property damage to get attention,” Collins wrote.

Employment Department spokesperson Rebeka Gipson-King said the agency never had a rule against posting Black Lives Matter messaging. “It’s aligned with our own agency’s values,” she wrote by email.

Seven months after her reprimand, Shari Collins left the Employment Department. She now works for another state agency.

Esther Harlow also left the Employment Department. She now works as a civil rights investigator for the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries, where she once filed her own complaint about the Employment Department.

Catherine Branch left, too.

Branch said she had setbacks in training from the start. The stress of her experience, she said, worsened her pre-existing depression, which was otherwise manageable. She described having nightmares about work. In consultation with her doctor, she went on leave in November 2020, according to her BOLI complaint.

She ultimately resigned.

“I had to,” she said. “It took an emotional toll on me.” She feels no one was held accountable.

The Employment Department acknowledged reaching an out-of-court settlement with Branch. Branch would not discuss its terms. It’s unclear if the settlement addressed additional concerns she raised about how race affected her career path at the agency.

BOLI said Branch withdrew her complaint. The Employment Department said the settlement completely resolved the matter, leaving no outstanding claims against the agency from Catherine Branch.

But now there is another investigation at the 2,000-person agency, in another division — the Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance program.

Agency’s paid family and medical leave program faces outside investigation

State lawmakers approved the paid leave law in 2019. In a country with no national paid leave, Oregon’s forthcoming program stands out.

It will offer up to 12 weeks of compensated leave to workers at their most vulnerable. Workers who’ve just become parents, for example. Or fallen seriously ill. Workers who’ve experienced sexual assault or domestic violence.

Benefits are expected to begin in late 2023.

Related: Oregon signals delay to long-sought paid family and medical leave program

Worker advocates who pushed for the law say the ability of people from historically marginalized communities to access the forthcoming program is directly tied to the culture of the agency creating it.

Few details have emerged about the discrimination claim so far. The Employment Department says Barran Liebman LLP, a labor and employment law firm, is investigating. The agency also hired Karen Humelbaugh to lead the paid leave program, after what it said was the planned departure of acting division director Gerhard Taeubel.

Several key personnel have recently left the team.

“It’s just not a healthy environment,” one of the departing staff told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Concerns about agency culture quickly surfaced this week at a meeting of outside worker and employer groups who advise the paid leave program.

“There is ingrained, systemic racism happening in the organization,” said committee member Linda Herrera, a diversity consultant who had a long career at Chemeketa Community College. “You can bring in new people and if they get treated the same way, then this is not gonna work.”

Andrea Paluso, executive director of Family Forward Oregon, said the agency should not limit itself to a legal investigation. She urged the Employment Department to also work to uncover “not illegal, but toxic workplace culture issues” that could hamper its ability to recruit and retain staff.

“I agree completely, Andrea,” Gerstenfeld responded.

The Employment Department, he said at the meeting, was committed “to being an anti-racist agency.”

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