By Charles Hallman Staff Writer
-Illustration by Chris Harrison
A systematic pattern of firing Blacks or targeting them for eventual dismissal is occurring at the Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department (HSPHD), claim several present and former employees.
“They [County officials] are trying to get rid of long-term employees [and] also creating a hostile work environment” because of current budget woes, says Constance, who has worked at the County for more than two decades. “Hennepin County is supposed to be this kind of workplace where employees are an asset,” notes Constance, but she believes that managers have been creating a hostile work environment at HSPHD for the past several years. A Hennepin County spokeswoman said that of the 7,200 total employees at Hennepin County, 20 percent are people of color, and just over 17 percent of those who work in HSPHD are Black.
“A great number of [HSPHD] clients are people of color” who receive such services as childcare assistance, child protection, child support, health care, public assistance, and services for seniors, says Darwin, a Black male worker. “There are no people of color in strategic decision-making positions that affect clients. There are no African American men or women who have a high-level job [at HSPHD], although a large number of Hennepin County clients [are Black].”
Annie and Bernice are longtime HSPHD workers; Annie was fired, and Bernice believes she is among several other Black women being targeted for termination. Both say they have observed first-hand this “pattern” for the past several years. “We know at least five people in the last two to five years that either have been terminated or are experiencing some gross disciplinary action,” says Annie, who believes things started to change for her around six years ago after HSPHD reorganized. “They brought six departments together under one in 2005,” she explains.
“They went into a strategic process of streamlining services and wrapping it around a business model. There was an urgency to reduce staff.” HSPHD supervisors “are going through expediting people out the door through disciplinary action,” says Annie. “It’s about saving money.” “It’s not just gender or age, [but] what I have been seeing lately, yes, has been all [Black] women,” says Constance.
“The employees that are being let go have great longevity, and they put in years of service. I think they [Hennepin County] are trying to get rid of those [longtime workers] and hire someone just newly out of school.” Bernice says she has been working in a hostile work environment for some time at HSPHD. “I also am on the fast track” to getting fired, she says, adding that she has twice been suspended without pay.
“They removed me from the team I was working with and isolated me at the other end of the building. There were some mistakes that I made, but I didn’t have a supervisor and a team to support me and help me be successful.” The two women say the ordeal has been hard on both of them. “They literally take you and beat you down emotionally,” says Annie. Managers scrutinized everyone closely, and according to her the littlest problem got her written up.
She often brought her concerns to higher-ups, but to no avail. “I think that started the action (toward her eventual firing).” Despite receiving three promotions in three years and reaching the top of her job classification and pay scale, Annie sees little hope for further advancement. “I’m older, African American, and would easily be considered a surplus employee.” Constance says she saw another longtime HSPHD worker, a Black female, get “let go [due to age]. She resigned, but it was forced.” Seeing these employees forced out “and not having to answer to why” bothers her, says Constance. “Why couldn’t it have been worked out to save their position?
Some of this stuff is crazy.” Darwin says, “There has been a pattern the last five years that African Americans who have held managerial positions [at HSPHD], who are all over age 40 and all have at least 20 years of service, have been either terminated or moved on. I know at least three Black females — all college graduates, all over 50, and all having at least 10-15 years of experience — that have been waltzed out the door and terminated in the past two years. “And it wasn’t on performance, but it was because of some personal agendas. Either they pushed back on company policy or were considered too aggressive or outspoken for the position.
So they were shut up and fired.” He believes that “a lack of due process” may have occurred in many of the termination cases involving Blacks at HSPHD. He strongly suggests that the Hennepin County commissioners should immediately address this issue “on behalf of people of color.” Darwin claims that Commissioner Peter McLaughlin “has been aware that there is a pattern of African American females leaving the County under very negative conditions — he is aware of a few of them that have left. To my awareness, he has not spoken about it.”
The MSR tried unsuccessfully for three weeks to contact Hennepin County Commissioners McLaughlin, Mark Stenglein and Gail Dorfman for comment. McLaughlin never returned our phone messages. Both Stenglein and Dorfman did return our calls, but we were unable to reach them after receiving their messages. “Hennepin County is not a private corporation and funded by stockholders,” says Darwin. “It is funded by taxpayers’ money, and it is a social service organization run by elected officials. They work for us.” “There is gender bias at Hennepin County,” says Annie, adding that the problem isn’t going away soon. “It’s going countywide and statewide,” she surmises. “I don’t think things are going to change until the upper managers are made accountable in making decisions,” concludes Constance.
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