Oregon investigating 'anti-Black bias' at state labor agency
The state agency tasked with scrutinizing unlawful employment practices is now facing its own outside investigation — following allegations that the public workplace is rife with racism.
The third-party probe of the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries follows the sudden departure of Carol Johnson, the chief administrator for the agency's Civil Rights Division, who says she was forced to resign due to a hostile and bigoted work environment.
Johnson now seeks $2.3 million in damages from BOLI in a lawsuit filed April 30 in Multnomah County Circuit Court.
"BOLI is charged with the vital duty to investigate discrimination across Oregon but faces internal challenges with a culture of racism that must be addressed before it can effectively combat discrimination for Oregon residents," said Diane S. Sykes, an attorney for Johnson.
After an early career as a lawyer, Johnson spent 14 years as founding executive director of the Arkansas Fair Housing Commission, the state's only civil rights agency. She moved to BOLI in June 2019.
Thirteen months later, she was gone — citing in the suit a pattern of race-based antagonism in which subordinate employees ignored her instructions, yelled at her and resisted the new case processing protocols Johnson was implementing.
Johnson is Black. The suit doesn't specifically identify the subordinates involved, but says most workers at the public agency are white.
"BOLI's upper management gave Johnson no authority to admonish or discipline staff for work deficiencies or insubordination, undermining plaintiff's credibility and leaving her vulnerable to further discriminatory targeting and harassment," according to the suit.
Johnson later added three Black civil rights investigators, but pre-existing staff called the hiring "cronyism" and placed bets on who would leave first, the suit says. Deputy Commissioner Duke Shepard similarly told Johnson that Black administrators rarely last long in Oregon and later suggested he could fire her, per the suit.
Shepard declined to comment on the allegations.
Staff filed a number of complaints against Johnson, according to the lawsuit, including for appearing in a TV news segment about a botched investigation into Michael Fesser, whose complaint was dismissed by BOLI years before the Portlander's wrongful arrest made headlines.
An anonymous source sent Johnson a package of feces in the mail in June 2020, one month before her resignation, the suit claims.
Commissioner Val Hoyle, the elected official who leads BOLI, appears to have corroborated some of Johnson's concerns — highlighting in a message to staff that Johnson's qualifications had faced far more scrutiny than a white male manager with only a high school diploma to his name.
"I will not let insincere concerns about 'process' be used as a cover for anti-Black bias in our workplace," Hoyle wrote, according to the litigation. "The reports of actions taken against Carol that we have received are serious and profoundly disturbing."
Hoyle inked a $50,000 contract with the Stoel Rives law firm on Aug. 26, days after Johnson filed a tort complaint against BOLI warning of further legal action. Hoyle declined to comment on the specific allegations, saying she was awaiting the investigative report from labor attorney Brenda Baumgart.
"My office fully supports a thorough and transparent process to get to the root of these important issues," Hoyle said.
After leaving BOLI, Johnson was hired by the city of Austin, Texas in February to be its first-ever civil rights officer.
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