Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs

After receiving clients’ complaints, for two years I have been working from within the system as a State of Michigan employee to have the state follow its own rules on investigating client complaints of discrimination and Civil Rights violations.  At this point it is clear that the State of Michigan has no working system for reporting/receiving, tracking, and investigating such complaints.  So I am requesting permission to speak at the Michigan Civil Services Commission meeting this Wednesday to 9/20/2017, to request that the Commission  establish one.  The following is the current draft of what I intend to present should they allow.

Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs: An appeal to the Michigan Civil Services Commission

July 2, 1986 was my first day as a state employee working with Benzie County DSS Migrant Program. Today I am one of several Migrant Program Workers in the Sparta office, handling Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker cases across seven counties. Most importantly we assist with Day Care to keep the young kids out of the fields, Food Assistance because they often spend their last dime getting here to work, and Medical Assistance because it is dangerous work.

Federal Law requires that the State of Michigan have procedures for handling and documenting client discrimination and Civil Rights complaints. I come here today to bring to your attention the fact that the State of Michigan does not have a working system to do this.

In 2015 clients verbally complained about administrative policies within my agency that they felt were targeting them as members of the Hispanic/Latino population. When I received the clients’ complaints I let them know I would be reporting the complaints but let them remain anonymous. Civil Service’s Civil Rights training states that anonymous, verbal complaints should be handled as any other complaint. Civil Service training further states that “If a staff person receives a complaint of discrimination on a plain piece of paper or on Michigan Department of Civil Rights or US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission letterhead, it must be forwarded to the County Director/District Manager. Together the County/District and the Office of Human Resources will investigate the allegations and prepare a response.”

Since our office services several counties, each with their own director, I felt it was appropriate to refer it to the Director of Migrant Affairs who is over the Migrant Program state wide. The Civil Rights training also provided the USDA email address for reporting discrimination and Civil Rights complaints. So on June 17, 2015 I sent an email expressing the clients’ complaints to the agency’s local administration and I CC-ed it to the Director of Migrant Affairs and the USDA report email.
Instead of investigating the matter and contrary to policy and law, I was chastised and warned not to express my concerns outside of the local administration. I received more complaints and on July 7, 2015 I again expressed them via email to the MDHHS administration and CC-ed them to the USDA and the Director of Migrant Affairs.

The state’s response via the local administration was to serve me with an official write up, a Notice of Formal Counseling, threatening “further action” if I voiced ”concerns regarding the handling of the Spanish speaking community” above the local level. From this it is clear that the local management understood that I was reporting client discrimination against the Hispanic community.

Via my union, the UAW, the situation was brought to the attention of the Office of Human Resources via the grievance procedure. As previously mentioned, the Office of Human Resources is tasked with investigating such complaints jointly with the County/District.

By September it appeared that there was not going to be an investigation or a timely resolution from within the agency. So on September 11, 2015 I reported it to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and offered to provide proof of the violations. The response on from MDCR was: “John, That (Thank) you for providing us with a wealth of information on this critical issue. Mark & I will connect first thing on Monday morning to discuss and circle back with you on your personal cell. Your advocacy on this issue is greatly appreciated.”

I never received further response after the email from MDCR committing to getting back with me.

In late December, perfectly timed to coincide with my seasonal layoff, OHR replied to the union. Their response acknowledged that the Union’s position was that I had “expressed concern that Federal laws rights were being violated for Spanish speaking clients.”

Further, their response acknowledged that I had reported this to my “supervisor, section manager and the director of Migrant Affairs.” It is clear that the Office of Human Resources understood that I had reported complaints of discrimination and Civil Rights violations.

At this point the Office of Human Resources should have followed the Civil Services mandate to investigate the complaints. Instead OHR ignored Civil Service rules and instead stated that, “It is important that concerns are raised through the chain of command so that concerns can be resolved at the lowest level, whenever feasible.” This is a direct contradiction with the Civil Service mandate for such investigations to be conducted at the Director level and above in conjunction with the OHR.

The State’s response to the Union indicated the censure was appropriate since I didn’t provide names of specific clients who were victims of the Civil Rights violations. So upon returning from layoff in 2016 I put together a list of 17 families who I believe had their rights violated with the knowledge and approval of the administration. This allowed the clients who had complained to retain their anonymity. I submitted them to my supervisor on May 20, 2016.

On June 22, 2016 I had no response from the administration, so I made another referral to the USDA. Since the administration had threatened “further actions” if I contacted USDA again, I didn’t mention it to them and just reported it to the USDA.

On August 16, 2016 I emailed the supervisor to check into the status of the investigation and CCed the office of Human Resources personnel who had written the State’s decision in December. The Administrative response was, “I don’t remember getting the list of names from you.” So at that point I had followed the HR mandated directive of providing the names to the local Supervisor and letting her handle it and HR was aware that I had done so and they did not initiate an investigation.

On August 24, 2016 I received an email from the USDA indicating that they intended to investigate the clients’ complaints. So I put together a lengthy report documenting the administration’s awareness and approval of the discriminatory treatment including emails, case names, case numbers and benefits lost due to the administration’s discriminatory policies/practices.

In September 2016 the USDA sent two auditors. The week prior to their investigation the State sent an auditor to prepare our office for the investigation. When she spoke with me I gave her a rough draft of the investigation report I had been preparing for the USDA auditors.

At the time my hope was that the State Auditor would read my report and deal with the issues before the Federal Auditors arrived. Instead she sat in on the interview I had with the auditors and repeatedly interrupted and tried to undermine my responses.

Prior to my layoff in 2016 the supervisor said that the USDA found problems during the course of their investigation. When I was called back this spring there had been some administrative changes and by the end of July one of the supervisors, the section manager and the county director who had been involved were all retired. The new local administration indicated they were unaware of any investigation or other issues. So I continued to push the issue. At this point the new Director has indicated that the administration is investigating the clients’ complaints.

While I am delighted that someone in the agency has finally taken the clients’ complaints seriously, It is clear that the system as it is, doesn’t work.

I am here before you to request on behalf of clients and employees of the State of Michigan that you:

  • Establish a centralized system for reporting discrimination and Civil Rights violations that will record and track complaints and allow for anonymous reporting as well as accountability.
  • Set a statewide protocol for the investigation of complaints including procedures and timeliness standards
  • Establish and require mandatory training for those who will be tasked with investigating these complaints

Two years of ignoring reports of discrimination and the violation of Civil Rights is two years too long. Clients and front line employees should be able to anonymously report violations. We should not have to report Supervisors, Section Managers, local Directors, the Director of Migrant Affairs, OHR, etc. to the State Director. It should not take two years, a Federal investigation and the retiring of three levels of administration before an investigation is initiated. Please make the State of Michigan comply with Federal mandates to provide equal access to our programs and to investigate when complaints are raised. Silencing the messenger is not the answer.

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