Erie County Legislator Joe Lorigo has sent a letter to county officials and his colleagues in the Legislature highlighting concerns with alleged cases of racial discrimination occurring within county departments. The letter references three separate instances which are outlined below:
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruling cites potential civil rights violations by Erie County
The first case referenced in the letter involves an African-American buildings and grounds employee who claims he faced racial discrimination and was retaliated against by the county for bringing a complaint to the Erie County Equal Employment Office (EEO), the office tasked with investigating internal harassment and discrimination complaints. According to the employee’s complaint, his concerns were ignored when he brought them to the attention of the county and he believes he was retaliated against by both the county and his supervisors because of his race.
Due to the actions of Erie County, the employee then brought his complaint to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (USEEOC) in 2013. In 2015, the USEEOC found the employee’s complaint to have merit, stating:
“Reasonable cause exists to believe that Charging Party [Erie County’s employee] was mistreated because of his race; and in retaliation for having complained about race discrimination he was monitored and disciplined, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended”
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, and sex. Specifically, Title VII makes it “an unlawful employment practice for an employer… to discriminate against any individual with respect to his [or her] compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individuals’ race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
Following the USEEOC ruling, the plaintiff filed a claim against Erie County in United States District Court in December, 2015 concerning the alleged discrimination and retaliation. The claim is expected to be heard in federal court this spring. As Legislator Lorigo’s letter points out, one of the individuals accused of racially discriminating against the building and grounds employee has since been promoted to Commissioner of the Erie County Parks Department. The individual was promoted after the USEEOC had already made their determination of a potential civil rights violation. The allegations were not properly brought to the attention of the Legislature during the nomination hearings before the Legislature approved the candidate.
Allegations of discrimination in Social Services Department
Additionally, as part of their investigation into how the county handled complaints surrounding former Social Services Commissioner Al Dirschberger, the Lemire Law Firm references what EEO Director Jesse Burnette refers to as an “alarming” number of racial discrimination complaints by employees within the Child Protective Services workforce. That excerpt reads as follows:
“According to Mr. Burnette, Dr. Dirschberger sought to identify areas of employee concerns, such as the perceived lack of diversity in the CPS workforce, in part because minority employees complained of racial discrimination. Mr. Burnette stated that the number of these complaints was “alarming” and, therefore, he discussed the matter with Commissioner Palmer and Dr. Dirschberger”
Mr. Burnette stated there were no discriminatory practices after reviewing available information, but his findings were never brought to the attention of Legislators and no information was provided on the concerns raised.
The allegations of discrimination in social services and problems with EEO are ongoing
Recently, current and former county employees who are concerned about discrimination within the Department of Social Services requested to meet with Legislator Lorigo. The employees described instances of discrimination, including on the basis of age and race. According to the employees, when they took their complaints to the EEO office, they were told they couldn’t file a complaint. Legislator Lorigo has met with Social Services Commissioner Marie Cannon to discuss these allegations and the concerns of the employees.
“This is a disturbing trend that needs to be addressed,” said Legislator Lorigo. “No employee should face discrimination in the workplace. Further, if an employee files a complaint with the county EEO office, it should be handled properly. Based on each of the situations referenced above, there is reason to believe serious problems exist within county government and the county’s EEO office. I hope my colleagues and I can work together to address this issue with urgency.”
Legislator Lorigo has requested a committee hearing on the topic to determine if the county needs to take additional steps to address these issues.