Salem management faces claims of ignoring discrimination, harassment

The lobby of Salem City Hall pictured summer 2018. (Salem Reporter files)

Several city of Salem employees say they have recently faced discrimination and harassment at work, and are now seeking help from the state and courts.

Since December, five current and former employees have filed claims or lawsuits against the city government. Three allege sexual discrimination or harassment, while the other two allege discrimination based on race and disability, respectively.

Several of the claims said managers and the city’s human resources department did not act on the complaints. Salem officials say they are “committed to preventing discrimination and harassment in the workplace.”

“All complaints are thoroughly and immediately investigated once they are reported to us,” said Human Resources Director Mina Hanssen in an email. “Employees are provided multiple channels in which to bring forward concerns.”

The revelations come as sexual harassment has roiled the Oregon Capitol. The state is also investigating claims of sexual discrimination at Marion County.

News of the recent claims against the city of Salem was first reported by the Statesman Journal.

Three of the claims were sent to the Bureau of Labor and Industries. Saul Hubbard, the agency’s spokesman, confirmed the agency is investigating.

In one complaint, Permit Technician Casey Levy said planning examiner Claude Kennedy routinely gave “unwelcome hugs” and called her “honey” and “sweetie.” Then, in October, another planning examiner, Jerry Wade, tried to use a piece of paper to touch her butt, Levy claimed.

Levy also claimed she was retaliated against by a human resources employee for filing the complaint.

A separate complaint filed with the state, from Plans Examiner Deirdrie Wade, said she witnessed Levy’s October incident. She reported what she saw to human resources and was told it was resolved. But she said it’s an ongoing problem management hasn’t addressed.

“Within the two years of my employment, on various other occasions, male coworkers have made inappropriate comments to female workers and there has been no corrective actions taken,” she said. “The treatment by male coworkers is ongoing.”

Separately, Fleet Maintenance Technician Jose Botello claims he was discriminated against for being the only Hispanic employee in his department. He said his work is more scrutinized than others’.

“I am singled out for the same conduct that co-workers are not,” he wrote in his complaint.

Botello claimed he was called “bitch” at work, and that a supervisor told him “after lunch, you can be Tom’s bitch.” That same supervisor questioned Botello’s ability to read English, Botello claimed.

When Botello complained to management, he was told he should “excuse the behavior because my supervisor was ‘experiencing a lot of stress’ and that ‘he should take more management classes,’” Botello said.

But his complaints were reportedly swept aside by human resources. Botello said no action has been taken to help.

“The manager said he would speak with my supervisor but I am not aware of any follow up,” Botello wrote in his complaint.

Days after the complaint, a manager told him he wanted “this bullshit behind us.” Botello said he took that to mean he would get in trouble if he complained again.

Separately, the city is also facing a lawsuit related to sexual harassment, though the discrimination is not detailed in the lawsuit.

On Feb. 13, maintenance worker David Vosgien claims he was fired for raising concerns of sexual harassment within his department to Mayor Chuck Bennett. He is suing the city and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2067, alleging they fired him in retaliation for his complaints.

A former city planner is also suing the city of Salem for disability discrimination. Carson Quam claims the city hired him April 2018 but didn’t accommodate his needs to use voice recognition software and ergonomic desk for his disabilities. The lawsuit said he was told he wouldn’t be retained after his probationary period ended due to “poor performance.”

When reached for comment, Hanssen said in an email that the city investigates every complaint to ensure a safe workplace.

“With respect to the allegations received by the city, each (complaint) was investigated and action was taken to correct behavior where appropriate,” she said.

Hanssen noted that disciplinary actions are largely confidential by law, hampering the city’s ability to clarify how it addresses complaints.

“The city is extremely limited on the information it is allowed to provide on disciplinary action involving individual employees, pending litigation or ongoing investigations,” she said. “It is unfortunate that we are not able to provide the details about the actions the city has taken, as I believe it would provide a clear picture that the city was, and is, responsive to harassment and discrimination complaints.”

Hanssen added that a multiyear survey of city employees, conducted by HR and Equity Consulting Firm, showed “overall, employees are satisfied in their roles at the city of Salem.”

The firm sent the survey to the city’s 1,100 employees, 460 of which responded, and published a 10-page report in 2018. It reportedly found both “high staff morale” and “discontent.”

READ: The 10-page survey of city employees.

“Respondents are proud of the work they do, and proud to be a part of the city,” the report listed as one of its key findings. It also noted that some workers felt stressed, underpaid and poorly managed. Twenty-six percent reported they experienced bias at work.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.