Downtown Wilmington protest targets reforms needed to address alleged bias in state government
The group, comprised of the NAACP and faith leaders, this summer held nine closed-door hearings statewide in which state workers could discuss racist acts encountered in state offices. About 100 workers from various agencies testified, and 50 provided testimony in private, according to the organization.
The News Journal in a series of stories last June detailed the efforts, but were not allowed into the meetings to hear testimony from workers.
Officials for the committee later said the Department of Labor had the most serious problems. The department includes the Office of Anti-Discrimination, which investigates charges of bias. State law prohibits employee discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, age, marital status or genetic information.
Markell met with committee members in January, and a week later, Delaware Labor Secretary John McMahon announced he was retiring. Markell nominated Patrice Gilliam-Johnson, a human resources expert and the daughter of late civil rights leader Jim Gilliam Sr., as his replacement.
Beaman said Monday that McMahon was not held responsible for what occurred during his time leading the department.
“There was a great number in our community that felt he was not held accountable for what happened under his watch,” Beaman said after the protest. “He retired and sails off into the sunset with accolades.”
McMahon, whose most recent annual salary was $119,000, has said he was not forced out.
In a July email to state employees, the governor expressed support for the committee’s inquiry, and said, “Management will be held accountable for adhering to and promoting our zero-tolerance policy.”
The report issued in December recommended the state fire supervisors who retaliate against state workers who report bias, as well as the creation of a task force to develop a plan for addressing racism, among other suggestions.
In a letter to Beaman on Monday, Markell Deputy Chief of Staff Drewry Fennell said the administration is committed to addressing the complaints of racism.
“We remain dedicated to ensuring that our work environments uphold our laws and reflect not only our values, but our goal to allow all employees and Delawareans to reach their full potential,” Fennel wrote.
The state also set up a hotline to receive complaints and assigned a point person for the Office of Management and Budget to follow up on each complaint. Fennell said the the agency cannot discuss the specifics of individual cases, but has been in frequent contact with representatives from the Committee on Racism in State Government to “be sure no complaint was missed.”
Fennell said the administration has agreed to get the group’s input in the selection of a human resources representatives and other consultants to address discrimination.
“We have agreed to work with you on how to best protect employees making discrimination claims from retaliatory conduct by managers,” Fennell wrote. “We have agreed to conduct a review of the protections available to whistle blowers. And we have addressed working on a uniform anti-discrimination policy in lieu of policies at each department.”
The Rev. Christopher Curry on Monday said aside from policy changes, the individuals involved in the discrimination need to be held accountable.
“There has been a lack of real actions,” said Curry, whose Ezion Fair Baptist Church in Wilmington hosted one of the July forums where testimony was taken. “The law has been broken and since they have broken it they should be held accountable. If this is the way that Gov. Markell plans to handle this, then it is just as wrong.”
Fennell said in her letter that the committee never provided complaints against the individual employees they alleged were involved in the discriminatory behavior.
“As a matter of state policy, in those cases where there were no specific allegations or evidence of misconduct, the state cannot accede to your request that those employees be terminated or disciplined,” Fennell wrote.
Protesters on Monday marched in a circle outside the French Street entrance of the building, where they met with Markell last year. The group, which included former state employees, minsters and their supporters, held signs and chanted, “Zero tolerance means zero tolerance!” and “Fed up! Can’t take no more!”
“Really what is disappointing is when we left in January, we left this building with the expectation that the governor would address these as he said he would,” said the Rev. Anthony Wallace, of the Crossroad Church in Dover. “We have a couple of changes in state department heads, but structurally the system remains the same.”
Robert Burke, who was one of the group marching near the Carvel building’s entrance, said as a retired state employee, he wanted to support his former colleagues.
“We need fair labor laws,” said Burke, a New Castle resident.
The Rev. Lawrence Livingston, pastor at Mother African Union Church in Wilmington, said he supports the hiring of Gilliam-Johnson, but the “directors, managers and administrators who have violated the law have not been held accountable for their actions.”
He said managers who have not promoted black state employees or who have harassed those employees are being allowed to quietly retire, rather than taking responsibility for their actions. Managers from any agency who have allowed racism to exist should be disciplined, calling the conditions “state-run racism.”
“A series of diversity courses and hostile work environment training sessions will not address the problem,” he said.
Livingston said if state government were really an equal opportunity employer, there would be more minorities in leadership positions. African-Americans accounted for 20 percent of state supervisors in 2014, and white managers made up 76 percent, according to the state.
“We will never achieve diversity and inclusion if we fail to address this racism,” he said.
The News Journal last week reported that the state Office of Management and Budget investigated allegations of racism in the Department of Labor a full month before the commission report was issued, after the allegations surfaced following the meetings where testimony was taken. The report, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, said there was an “an unhealthy work environment due to lack of professionalism and cultural insensitivity.”
State Human Resources Deputy Director Amy Bonner, who issued the Management and Budget report, said the investigation was ordered by Markell. Following the investigation, McMahon was presented with a list of recommendations and one was implemented, but it is unclear if the others were addressed.
Gilliam-Johnson has said that some recommendations have been implemented including hiring a training specialist to develop a personnel program. She said the department is also looking to revise the code of conduct and implement an internal complaint process for department employees.
Other recommendations included training courses for “communicating non-defensively” and reinstituting a diversity committee to “promote an atmosphere of respect and acceptance.”
Jessica Eisenbrey, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, referred comment to Markell’s office.
Beaman on Monday called on Markell to take a stand and dismiss workers found to have been engaging in racist acts without pay or benefits.
“These employees have broken the law and offended hundreds of people, and we don’t think they should be given an opportunity to retire or get a golden parachute,” Beaman said. “We want them fired.”
He declined to name specific employees who have been identified during the investigation.
“I don’t think it would do justice for us here today to give the specific names, but Gov. Markell knows who these people are,” Beaman said.
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