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An outside investigator hired by the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries dismissed the allegations of racism.

FILE  - Oregon Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle speaks with reporters. An outside investigator has dismissed reports of a pervasive anti-Black bias at Oregon's state labor agency, saying the allegations of racism lacked "sufficient evidence."

The probe of internal culture at the Bureau of Labor & Industries follows two lawsuits by former employees of the agency: Carol Johnson, who led the Civil Rights Division that investigates hostile workplace complaints made against private employers; and Shaina Pomerantz, who worked as one of those investigators.

Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle inked a $50,000 contract with Stoel Rives labor lawyer Brenda Baumgart, who reviewed BOLI's written records and ultimately conducted 20 interviews, though the agency claims both complainants declined to speak with her.

"I am pleased to announce that this report affirms our work, our commitment, our values and our direction," Commissioner Hoyle said in a statement. "I was happy to read in the report that employees past and present, including BIPOC employees, have positive feedback about the workplace culture."

Pomerantz's lawyer, Ashlee Albies, disputed the findings, saying her client agreed in January 2020 to answer questions but that the investigator "never followed up" for months, at which point the litigation had already been filed.

"I am curious how often this investigator, or any investigator hired by the state for that matter, finds violations of workplace rules," said Albies.

"The evidence will bear out at trial," said Johnson's attorney, Diane Sykes.

Allegations and findings

A respected lawyer who founded Arkansas' only civil rights agency, Johnson's $2.3 million suit against BOLI claims many civil rights investigators were insubordinate, antagonistic and disparaged her knowledge of Oregon law during her tenure.

The 40-page report, however, paints a different picture, describing Johnson's plans for a sweeping overhaul of the Civil Rights Division as "more likely than not" to provoke some level of pushback from long-time employees, regardless of race.

Another factor: BOLI was unready for the global pandemic, with only two virtual private networks available for over 100 employees and just a handful of laptops.

The transition to working from home spurred a confrontation between Johnson and a white female senior investigator who, the report says, began sobbing out of fear she would lose her job after being told she would have to work during regular business hours. The woman reportedly had three kids and therefore additional parenting duties during the pandemic.

"This whole incident struck the Commissioner as odd — not only Ms. Johnson's 'deep offense' to this situation (almost as if 'how dare this woman raise her voice at me'), but her lack of empathy for a working mother at the beginning of a pandemic," the report says.

Then again, the report reveals that someone filed a BOLI grievance against Johnson after employees were only granted a seven-minute break during a diversity training session, rather than the 15-minute break stipulated by union contract.

PHOTOS - The bag of poop that was mailed to Carol Johnson, former Civil Rights Division chief for Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industries, is shown here. The report confirms that Johnson received a package of feces in the mail through an anonymous gag gift company known as Poop Senders, but says there's no conclusive evidence linking the package to BOLI. The FBI and district attorney reportedly decline to investigate the matter, and Baumgart says Johnson may not have accurately recounted when the package was sent to her.

The investigator acknowledged that allegations of implicit bias and micro-aggressions are difficult to document, but suggested the tension at BOLI was more attributable to Johnson's lack of familiarity with the "'Oregon nice' communication style" than racism within the ranks.

Pomerantz, the investigator hired by Johnson, alleged she was given more work than white employees and had her probation extended. The report said Pomerantz's first boss was a Black man who intentionally assigned her more work because she was less experienced than other new hires and needed the training.

The document said Johnson had a "pre-existing relationship" with Pomerantz's mother, which may have provoked an accusation of cronyism.

"Getting to the bottom of these allegations wasn't just about BOLI as an employer, but about ensuring that all Oregonians can be assured that when they come to this agency they will have fair access to justice," said Hoyle.

Zane Sparling
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