Second suit alleges racist workplace at Oregon labor agency
Allegations of race-based bias and hostility are piling up at the state agency charged with investigating unlawful employment practices.
The Portland Tribune first revealed that Oregon's Bureau of Labor & Industries hired an outside law firm to scrutinize its own workplace — and the independent audit has grown after a second ex-employee filed a lawsuit claiming she was forced out.
Former Civil Rights Division investigator Shaina Pomerantz said she experienced "a culture of disparate treatment and racial hostility" that included a higher workload than white employees and a six-month extension of her probation that was not applied to other new hires.
"When Black employees, including Ms. Pomerantz spoke up, made suggestions, or asked questions, non-Black (Civil Rights Division) employees shut down these investigators and told them their questions were not relevant, wrong, and/or inconsistent with CRD practices," according to the litigation.
Her suit bolsters the account of her former boss, Carol Johnson, who left a $10,300-per-month job as division head last July, citing intolerable conditions in a separate lawsuit.
Pomerantz, 45, says the Civil Rights investigators, who are mostly white, turned their cameras off during virtual meetings with Johnson, who is Black, and stayed silent when Johnson acknowledged the death of George Floyd.
The Civil Rights Division "often dismissed race discrimination complaints at a disproportionately high rate," the suit says. "Where CRD complaints provided enough information to suggest a race discrimination claim but didn't explicitly allege race discrimination, CRD investigators would recommend immediate dismissal."
BOLI's elected leader, Commissioner Val Hoyle, appears to have corroborated some of the claims raised by Johnson, according to snippets of her emails included in the first lawsuit. But a bureau rep pushed back more forcefully on Pomerantz' claims, saying BOLI extended employees' probationary periods during the unusual circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"There were reasons to extend it, to try and give her the chance to be able to perform in her job — but we can say undeniably that she was not performing her duties," said spokeswoman Anne Marie Levis. "BOLI believes this is not a credible complaint, but we are awaiting the outcome of the investigation."
"Commissioner Hoyle takes this very seriously," the spokeswoman added.
Before taking the state job, Pomerantz was offered a $27,000 settlement after she filed a workplace complaint against her former employer, Concordia University, but rejected the cash because it was contingent on signing a non-disparagement agreement, according to her lawyer. BOLI dismissed the complaint in 2019, and the school declared bankruptcy the next year.
"BOLI has dismissed many cases that have gone on to get a verdict from a jury," said the attorney, J. Ashlee Albies, noting as examples the bogus arrest of Michael Fesser, as well as the $1 million awarded to two Portland Public Schools maintenance workers who faced racial harassment on the job.
A former chief of staff for ousted state Rep. Diego Hernandez, Pomerantz raised concerns during a sexual harassment investigation that the lawmaker had promoted a staff member due to their romantic relationship, but that particular complaint wasn't substantiated after both parties denied being intimate.
Albies says her client disagreed with the finding, and later was offered an apology by a co-chair after testifying before the state committee investigating Hernandez.
"The fact that she has made protected complaints of discrimination," said Albies, "I think it shows that this is somebody who stands up for herself."
Follow me on Twitter
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.