On the on the heels of the departure of former Labor Secretary John McMahon, the Rev. Laurence Livingston says more Labor Department supervisors need to leave the embattled agency to end what he says is a culture of racism.
Patrice Gilliam-Johnson is confirmed as Delaware labor secretary.
A group of African-American Delaware ministers and NAACP officials on Wednesday said responsibility for ending discrimination in the state Department of Labor is with Gov. Jack Markell and not Patrice Gilliam-Johnson, whose nomination as head of the embattled agency was approved by the Senate on Wednesday.
“Because this is a law-breaking issue, it should be handled before her first day on the job,” said the Rev. Christopher Curry, a member of the Committee on Racism in State Government.
A series of stories in The News Journal last June detailed efforts by the group, which this summer held meetings at churches across the state about alleged racial bias in state government. The group says about 100 state workers testified at the closed-door hearings and more than 50 others spoke with them in private. The News Journal was not allowed into the meetings.
The committee on Dec. 10 provided a report to Markell saying there is “rampant” racism in state government and met with the governor on Jan. 6. They said the most egregious incidents were in the Department of Labor and supervisors engaged in racist hiring practices and allowed a toxic workplace environment.
State law bans discrimination of an employee based on race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, age, marital status or genetic information. The Labor Department oversees workplace discrimination investigations, along with unemployment insurance, labor statistics and career training programs.
A week after the meeting between committee officials and Markell, Labor Secretary John McMahon announced he was retiring, and the governor nominated Gilliam-Johnson, an educator and daughter of legendary late civil rights leader Jim Gilliam, to the cabinet-level position. Gilliam-Johnson, of Wilmington, also has a background in human resources, most recently serving as chairwoman of the Wilmington University Organization Dynamics Program.
Markell, in a statement at the time, pointed to her “understanding of people and how best to support them and their organizations.”
At the confirmation hearing Wednesday, state Sen. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, asked Gilliam-Johnson how she would use her background in organizational behavior to handle disputes at the Department of Labor, saying that she would be “put to the test” because of the problems there.
She responded that a key is having “conversations that will bring to light the things that people have concerns about, and where there’s differences.”
“In some cases, it’s about just looking at the law and figuring out what can be done, what’s fair, and what the law says,” she said.
Later, Gilliam-Johnson told The News Journal she also learned lessons handling racial disputes while working in human resources for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington, D.C.
“People have really different perceptions of what’s fair and it’s really important to try and get people on the same page to really understand what fairness means,” she said.
Gilliam-Johnson said she couldn’t comment about whether she or Markell should terminate any supervisors until she sees more evidence.
“It’s going to be important to get in there and see what has really transpired, to look for facts, to figure out issues of accountability and to hold people accountable,” she said.
Gilliam-Johnson, whose nomination was unanimously approved by the Senate Wednesday, also said that her family’s legacy “speaks volumes as to why she wants to be labor secretary.”
Markell in a statement Wednesday thanked lawmakers for their approval.
“It’s clear they see, as I have, that her fierce dedication to Delaware’s underserved communities and passion for public service make her a great asset to Delaware and in our efforts to continue building a stronger workforce,” he said.
Curry, a pastor at Ezion Fair Baptist Church in Wilmington, said Gilliam-Johnson should not be put into the position of firing employees “because she happens to be African American.” Representatives of the committee on Wednesday said Markell needs to act on all of their recommendations, which include dismissals and changing the way employees can submit workplace grievances.
“She has a whole lot of other issues she should be working on as it relates to employment,” Curry said.
Committee member the Rev. Lawrence Livingston, pastor at the Mother African Union Church in Wilmington, said Markell should fire mid-level managers in the Labor Department who perpetuated racist practices. Members of the coalition declined to say how many managers they would like to see terminated, but said they had given a list of names to Markell.
“These mid-level managers, many of them, if not all of them, need to be dismissed,” Livingston said. “This is a problem that has languished over time.”
Livingston said a system of “white supremacy” exists in Delaware, one that “rejects the rights and privileges of people of color.
“We’re not talking about Klan rallies necessarily,” he said. “We’re talking about a system of oppression and control.”
A Markell spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the issues raised by the committee members.
The News Journal also has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for an investigation by the state Office of Management and Budget regarding alleged incidents of racial acts by workers.
Pastors said management and budget officials told them they found similar problems at the agency that they had uncovered.
Contact Karl Baker at email@example.com or (302) 324-2329. Follow him on Twitter @kbaker6.