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Monday, April 29, 2013

Former Health Official Alleges Discrimination, Sexism at State Agency

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Mon, Apr 29, 2013 at 4:05 PM

A former high-level employee at the Oregon Health Authority is threatening to sue the agency, saying the state's public health director discriminated against her because she's a woman.

Jean O'Connor, fired from her job as the OHA's deputy director for public health in February, filed a tort claim notice with the state in early March, according to documents obtained by the Mercury in a public records request. In the brief letter—a required precursor to lawsuits against state agencies—O'Connor claims she took "discrimination and harassment by Dr. Melvin A. Kohn on the basis of my gender, marital, parenting status, and attempted use of family leave."

And she says she was let go from the agency in February without due process, and claims a letter sent out to staff about the move damaged her reputation.

"As a consequence of Dr. Kohn’s actions, I have and will continue to incur monetary damages, emotional distress, and harm to my professional reputation," O'Connor writes in the tort claim.

She doesn't appear to have filed suit.

O'Connor's claims go far beyond those listed in the terse letter. In a formal complaint filed days after she was told she'd be let go, O'Connor laid out wide-ranging grievances: from Kohn's alleged demeaning and disrespectful interactions with female employees, to being discouraged from taking time to care for her children, to questioning the agency's male-centric leadership.

But an internal OHA investigation largely failed to turn up evidence of O'Connor's allegations, and concluded Kohn had not violated state policy against workplace discrimination.

It did find, however, many OHA employees described working conditions at the agency as "difficult and untenable, citing low morale and high work volume." That's potentially bad news for the millions of Oregonians who count on the agency for services such as timely alerts for things like a salmonella outbreak that occurred in February or toxic algae blooms on the state's waterways.

O'Connor's compaint [PDF] is dated February 19, five days after she was informed by Kohn and an OHA human resources worker she'd be let go.

"I have been threatened with wrongful termination as retaliation for challenging discriminatory acts made on the basis of whistleblowing, gender, marital status, parenting status, and use or attempted use of family leave," the complaint begins, before launching into 10 pages of allegations.

Among O'Connor's chief contentions is that she was fired for speaking with the Oregon Department of Justice about a whistleblower suit filed earlier this year against the OHA. She says two employees with knowledge of the facts of the suit approached her, and that she called the DOJ for advice on what they should do. For making that call, O'Connor says, she was fired.

She further claims Kohn frequently condescended to female employees, calling them "honey" and "sweetheart."

"Usually in the privacy of his office, and in connection with statements that threatened their employment of that diminished or dismissed their contributions to the public health system," the complaint says. At another point, it alleges Kohn "made statements such as 'she must have been doing her nails' when referring to women who were late or not available to answer questions."

O'Connor— who came to the OHA in 2011 after working on public policy matters with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—also says she was made to feel guilty when she had to leave work to care for her children. Four weeks into her job with the OHA, she says Kohn told her "I don't give a fuck about your kids. If I tell you to be here, you'll be here," a statement Kohn denied he made.

And O'Connor says Kohn routinely overlooked qualified women for open positions, tapping men to fill interim and full-time spots.

"Dr. Kohn has created a work environment with a "good old boys" feel, insulting women and pushing them to the fringes of leadership in the Division," the complaint says.

As unflattering a picture as the document offers of Kohn, an internal investigation [PDF] into the matter turned up a less-than rosy assessment of O'Connor's tenure at the OHA. The report, by OHA Civil Rights Investigator Christine Meadows, said there's little evidence for many of O'Connor's contentions, including that she was fired for reaching out to the DOJ about the whistleblower suit.

But the investigation highlights criticisms of O'Connor, painting her as a stubborn and aggressive co-worker.

"Witnesses report O'Connor and Kohn have very different styles; Kohn is deliberative and methodical and might take a long time to make decisions, while O'Connor is impatient and hard-working and may act impulsively to get things done," the report says. Later, it notes: "Several witnesses stated they had experiences with O'Connor in which she was rude, aggressive, bullying and undermining, some of which were reported to Kohn."

The report also acknowledges leadership at the OHA is currently largely male.

"The investigation determined most of this is due to short term interim appointments replacing women who recently left the Division," the report says, "however, the current make-up of Division leadership and the perception this creates seems to have negatively impacted employee morale within the Division."

The problem with O'Connor's claims, the investigation says, is that she helped fill those spots. According to the report, "several witnesses stated she was directly involved and took the lead in filling those interim positions."

Reached by e-mail, O'Connor declined to discuss the situation, and has not said whether she definitively plans to file a suit. Messages left for Kohn and OHA Director Bruce Goldberg about the situation haven't been returned yet.

UPDATE, 4:38 pm: Goldberg declined to talk about this with me, but his assistant just sent along this statement:

"I take all employee complaints very seriously and investigate them thoroughly. In this instance the complaints were not substantiated. While I can’t comment on the details of the investigation itself, there was an important recommendation made to me that I am following up on. The investigation identified significant concerns in the Public Health Division relating to staff morale. I and my leadership team are working closely with the leadership at the Public Health Division to address and remedy those issues. The employees in this division have important work to do and I want to make sure they have all the support they need to do it."

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