Women complain of anti-gay harassment at Oakland VA
Two female employees fired from the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Oakland Regional Center say their dismissals were in retaliation for their speaking up against anti-gay harassment and a hostile working environment.
The allegations range from coworkers sabotaging their performance records to threats of violence against one of the women who is an out lesbian and once served as mayor of the East Bay city of Pinole.
The former coworkers have both filed claims against the federal agency with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s San Francisco District Office. They are seeking reinstatement to comparable jobs within the VA’s bureaucracy and back pay since the time of their firing last summer.
Neither Henry Newton, the EEO manager for the VA’s Oakland office, nor Joyce Lewis Barrett, the lawyer from the VA’s Office of Regional Counsel assigned to the case, returned the Bay Area Reporter ’s calls seeking comment.
According to interviews with the employees and documents in the case, the problems began almost immediately once the women started working for the VA in November 2007.
Oakland resident Jamie Fox, 40, who is straight, and Lillian "Ann" Williams, 59, who now lives in El Cerrito but served on the Pinole City Council between 1988 and 1992, were hired by the VA as veterans service representatives and tasked with reviewing disability claims filed by veterans. During their six months of training the two women said that a male coworker continuously harassed Williams and poisoned other people’s opinion of her.
The two said that shortly after they were hired a lunch conversation between them and the male coworker, who is Japanese American, about the nationality of a group of Asian coworkers devolved into his making fun of Williams’s southern accent.
"I felt bullied," recalled Williams, who grew up in Columbus, Mississippi and served in the Navy. "I apologized to him later that day and said I didn’t mean to offend you."
But within a few weeks Williams said people at work stopped talking to her and she noticed files would go missing from her desk or important paperwork would be buried under stacks of claims to be processed.
"This guy infected other people behind my back," said Williams.
Fox also noticed the ill treatment of Williams at work.
"Basically, when Ann was around this man he physically didn’t want to be in her presence. The other team members pretended Ann wasn’t there," said Fox, who spent five years in the Navy. "She was pretty much shunned."
The abuse escalated to the point that during a February training held in Arkansas, another female worker told Fox that Williams was "the kind of girl who should be taken in the locker room, wrapped in a towel and beaten."
Bruce Choy, another employee hired at the same time as Fox and Williams, told the B.A.R. that he also observed his coworkers mistreating Williams and saying derogatory things about her sexual orientation.
"They would call her a dyke, things like that. I guess she had an opinion and some of the people were offended by that," said Choy, an Army veteran who was recently fired by the VA. "My sense of it is she was a target. She is older, she is white, she speaks with an accent like out of the Deep South. They know she is also lesbian. All those things sort of held against her."
Met with supervisor
Concerned for Williams’s well being, Fox said she urged her to report the incident and ongoing harassment she had been experiencing.
When the trainees returned to the Oakland office, Williams met with a supervisor to lodge a verbal complaint against the treatment she had been receiving at work. She also submitted a five-page letter detailing what had occurred and her concerns.
"I said that the only thing that I could think of as a reason for why I was being treated this way is because I’m gay," Williams wrote in the letter.
In regard to the threat of violence, Williams told her supervisor in the memo that "I am very upset and concerned about this situation now," and likened it to the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was beaten to death in Laramie, Wyoming.
She wrote in her letter that her coworkers’ "vicious attitude toward me is based upon homophobia," and requested to no longer be working in such close proximity to her male colleague whose behavior she described as "disturbing and somewhat frightening to me."
Williams said her supervisor, Kimberly Yarbrough, told her there would be no formal investigation into the claims because they were based on hearsay but did suggest she enter into mediation with her male co-worker.
"She said no, like they could care less. I was flabbergasted," said Williams, adding that she rejected the mediation because she did not trust the person and did not feel it would lead to any lasting solution.
Fox said she also had informed superiors at work about the situation, e-mailing them after one meeting in particular where the male co-worker made faces behind Williams’s back.
"I told her this is totally unprofessional," said Fox, adding that, "It was clear they didn’t want to do an investigation. They made it very uncomfortable for Ann to be there. It was so bad I didn’t like to be there."
According to the VA’s own guidelines, it has a "zero tolerance" for harassment, which does include sexual orientation. The policy also states the VA does not tolerate "retaliatory actions based on opposition to discrimination or participation in the discrimination complaint process."
The guidelines stress that supervisors "must take prompt and immediate action" when informed of alleged harassment. The policy also states that the complainant "should not be involuntarily transferred" because doing so could "constitute unlawful retaliation and are not effective in correcting the harassment."
Williams contends that her bosses set out to fire her after she made her first complaint. According to an e-mail Yarbrough sent out in March a few weeks after meeting with Williams, she told a human resources representative at the VA that she had "concerns" about her and that she intended to monitor her performance "very carefully."
The constant stress of the job and her ill treatment at work led Williams to develop high blood pressure, and one day she was taken to the hospital after she became dizzy at the office. She was diagnosed with having hypertension and prescribed medication.
When she returned to work, Williams’s supervisor reassigned her to a different team but the move failed to end the hostility she felt from her coworkers. Then in June 2008 Williams went to see Newton to file an EEO complaint and he said he would look into the matter.
Five days later she said she was called back to his office to be told by Newton that he could not investigate and that her supervisors are "very disappointed in your performance."
Williams was then let go based on her "poor performance" as was Fox, who also was told her performance was inadequate. Rather than be fired, Fox opted to resign and informed the VA she intended to file an EEO complaint.
"I planned to be with them for 25 years," said Fox, who said the position she was hired for "is a bridge to something else within the VA" and is the reason why she is fighting for re-instatement.
"I want my career back with the VA but everyone says it is suicide to go back into the lion’s den," said Fox. "What is important to me is I had a career. Any settlement money doesn’t make up having a career with a pension and benefits. What do I do now?"
Jennifer C. Pizer, senior counsel for Lambda Legal’s Western Regional Office, said Williams’s case is representative of what many LGBT people face in the workplace.
"The sad reality for LGBT people is even in places like California with very strong anti-discrimination laws, people often have difficulty getting along with different people," said Pizer. "People who are different or seen as other often are the target for unhappy coworkers with low self-esteem who like to take their unhappiness with themselves out on other people. It is a pervasive problem in American society and LGBT people are at the receiving end of a grossly disproportionate amount of other people’s mean spiritedness."
Today, both Fox and Williams are searching for work as their complaints wind through the EEOC system. They said they both are fighting depression and have struggled financially since being fired.
But they have no regrets about speaking up against the hostility they saw at their jobs and hope, if anything, telling their stories publicly will prevent the same abuse from being perpetrated against someone else.
"What happened to Ann is wrong and shouldn’t happen to anybody," said Fox. "People who witness things and do come forward shouldn’t be punished either."
Williams said her experience is just one more example of why there needs to be a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act that covers LGBT people.
"I have never experienced this before. I have never had my sexual orientation become such that I lost my job, my livelihood and something I was really looking forward to," said