MERIDEN — One black employee with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services learned a supervisor had hung a headless picture of her on a wall, another employee says a supervisor threatened to cut her face, and a male kitchen worker was searched after being accused of stealing food.
“There have been so many things that have happened to me,” said Kelly Pinder, an employee at Connecticut Valley Hospital, during a forum Thursday. “As a black man, we are always targeted. I feel like everything I do is under scrutiny.”
About 40 DMHAS employees shared their stories Thursday with members of the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities at the forum at Washington Middle School while DMHAS Commissioner Miriam Delphia-Rittman, took notes in a seat near the microphone.
State Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, was also in attendance. Afterwards, he called for a formal investigation by the state.
The workers shared stories of discrimination, harassment, threats, retaliation, and denied advancement to the commission, who hosted the forum after the state NAACP requested CHRO look into more than 20 complaints from DMHAS employees.
“We’ve been working on these complaints for over a year,” said Jason Teal, vice president of the Connecticut NAACP.
“We have done our part, in terms of bringing the workers here,” added Teal, former head of the NAACP’s Meriden-Wallingford chapter.“If it is found out that there is systematic racism or cultural bias, let us address this collectively.”
Before Thursday’s session, the commission received about 28 complaints against DMHAS from 2014 to 2017, the majority alleging discrimination based on race, color, national origin, or ancestry. CHRO is expected to decide its next step when it meets on Feb. 14. If the panel find discrimination, they could attempt to reach a settlement with the agency, or could refer the case to the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.
The workers described a “hot box,” “penalty box,” “bird cage,” and “fish bowl” where employees under investigation were forced to sit during their shifts while co-workers and patients looked on.
The complaints came from facilities throughout DMHAS, but most involved Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown. In one case, a forensic nurse at Whiting Forensic Institute, a division of CVH, said her supervisor threatened and belittled her so badly, Pinder and other co-workers formed a human wall around her. .
Joan Telemaque, of New London, approached the microphone accompanied by six co-workers, four of whom were white. Telemaque complained of harassment by a white male supervisor, who threatened to cut her face with his keys, insulted her credibility, and verbally abused her in front of co-workers and clients.
“My co-workers fought for me constantly,” Telemaque said. “There was retaliation, a lot of grievances were made. The union had no documentation of the grievances. I took every step. I e-mailed the commissioner. I did not get the help that I needed.”
Suzio said he was shocked by the testimony.
“Tonight I witnessed three hours of testimony by dozens of DMHAS employees asserting that DMHAS is engaged in widespread discrimination in the form of harassment, discriminatory promotion policies, and retaliatory practices by supervisors aimed primarily at minority employees,” Suzio stated in an e-mail. “The testimony was riveting, consistent and compelling.”
He said that, “at the very least, this event has convinced me that a formal investigation is warranted into potential systemic employment discrimination by a major state agency.”
Kimberly Warner, has worked for the state Department of Children and Families, Department of Corrections and DMHAS. She was joined at the microphone by three co-workers.
“When it comes to discrimination, DMHAS is the worst,” she said. “(Supervisors) are moved around like checkers on a checkerboard, not removed or terminated.”
Warner has filed a complaint with CHRO over an investigation into a patient assault she believes was mishandled, and bullying.
The NAACP also took aim at the union that represents the workers, SEIU Healthcare Local 1199, accusing it of ignoring the complaints, losing grievances, and ineffective representation.
“We strived to sit down with the union that is supposed to represent these people,” said Connecticut NAACP President Scot X. Esdaile. “But they refused to sit down with the NAACP. Shame on the SEIU 1199.”
The union could not be reached for comment for this story.
Commissioners listened to the testimony, asked questions and took names of supervisors and their managers.
CHRO’s legal team advised the employees that if they believe they have been victims of harassment, they need to file a complaint with CHRO within 180 days of the incident.
Delphin-Rittman, a black woman, expressed concern over what she heard about the agency she heads.
“I’ve reached out over the last few months to get more information,” she said. “This is something I take very seriously in my career and personally as an African-American woman.”
Delphin-Rittman proposed several initiatives to help improve relations: an anonymous call line that will start an investigation, a multicultural diversity program, a discrimination task force, and supervisor training. She told the workers to reach out to her personally if necessary.
“I’m deeply concerned by the testimony tonight,” she said. “It is my intention to investigate. I want us to work together. I encourage you to stay at the table. We can get to the other side of this because I hear you.”
In a dramatic moment, CHRO commissioner Joseph SuggsJr. asked Delphin-Rittman how long she’s been commissioner. She replied, two and a half years.
Suggs asked if she was aware of the general nature of the complaints; she replied yes, but not to the level she heard Thursday.
“Frankly, from what I’ve heard, the general nature of the complaints are highly credible, very disturbing, and very distressful,” Suggs said. “The most distressful is retaliation and retribution. On your word to this commission, will you instruct all subordinates that you will not tolerate retaliation? Can you make that commitment?”
“Yes,” replied Delphin-Rittman.