When Valyria Lewis took a union job in Portland in early 2020, she had 12 years of experience as a labor representative working with federal agencies from the Transportation Safety Administration to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Defense. She’d been in tough negotiations, dealt with difficult employers and helped union-represented employees fight racism.
But Lewis said she has never faced an employer like Oregon Health & Science University, which employs about 7,000 certified nursing assistants, housekeepers, food service staff and others represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal employees, where she works.
After she started in February 2020, Lewis waded through complaints, grievances and terminations at OHSU. She alleges she discovered a pattern of OHSU cracking down on employees who are racial and ethnic minorities or from other countries by disciplining them more harshly and firing them more often than white employees.
“OHSU (has) the worst I have ever encountered in management,” Lewis told The Lund Report.
Lewis said she saw lopsided treatment at arbitration hearings involving terminated Black and Hispanic employees. She said OHSU would fire a Black or brown employee for an offense while warning white employees about the same behavior. She collected past complaints and grievances and spoke to employees.
She met with former and current Black employees in a virtual town hall, hosted by the union.
Their consensus was that OHSU is a racist organization, she said.
This is not a new complaint. Last year, Black employees wrote a letter to the administration, accusing it of being an “enabler of racism” following successive noose incidents. Some of the incidents remain unresolved; in other cases managers knew the perpetrators. But no one was fired as Black employees had wished.
OHSU also has been sued by employees alleging racism, but those cases have not ended with a judgment against the organization.
AFSCME is now gathering testimony about racism from current and former OHSU employees and plans to file a class action lawsuit against OHSU.
Though the administration has repeatedly vowed to treat all employees with respect, the organization says it is now going through some deep soul-searching to improve its practices and rid the workplace of racism, gender bias and sexual harassment. On its website the company even published hiring and termination data from the union showing that a disproportionate share of ethnic and racial minorities had been fired or disciplined compared with white employees.
“These numbers are painful but important,” it said, commenting on the data. “This is who we are and who we’ve been. We can and will do better.”
Earlier this year, following a sexual assault lawsuit against OHSU that grabbed national headlines, OHSU hired former Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate company practices involving complaints of racism and sexual harassment.
OHSU has pledged to change its culture even as the investigation is ongoing.
But Lewis is skeptical of OHSU’s promises.
“OHSU has this habit of putting all of the good things in writing,” Lewis said, referring to its promise to fight racism, “but never putting them into action. They put them in writing just to say ‘Look what we did.’”
Unblemished Record, Then Fired
Soon after Lewis started working at AFSCME, the union took up the case of Gloria Richards.
Now 59, Richards was hired by OHSU in 1998 as a clerical worker. She answered calls, collected patient information and scheduled patients for doctors, among other things. She was always one of a few Black employees on the team where she worked, whether it was in the hematology unit or in a pool of peers.
For more than two decades, she didn’t have a blemish on her record, Lewis said. But last year she was fired along with another Black employee. The coworker had asked Richards to serve as a monitor so he could take an exam remotely for Portland Community College, Richards agreed, but then backed out when he asked her to lie and say she was a professor, Richards said. Richards also discovered that he had been collecting doctors’ signatures for an unknown reason, she said. She told her supervisor about the situation, but OHSU fired them both last year.
The union filed a grievance, accusing OHSU of denying Richards her rights and the case went to arbitration. The decision is pending.
Lewis said she later dealt with another case involving a white supervisor who was not fired after forging an employee’s name, which would have caused the employee to lose overtime. That case made OHSU’s treatment of Richards seem racist, Lewis said.
“(A) document Gloria was accused of falsifying wasn't even an OHSU document, and they couldn’t verify if she signed it. The document the white employee signed was an OHSU document which directly violated OHSU policy and Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division overtime laws,” Lewis said.
Lewis said she presented the two cases to human resources to illustrate discriminatory discipline against a Black employee but was brushed off.
OHSU declined to comment on the case, and it didn't respond to any other questions related to this story.
As for Richards, she said she just wants to be rehired at her job, which paid about $28 an hour.
“I want OHSU to restore my position and pay for the last 18 months of traumatizing me,” she said.
‘Shocks And Surprises’
This past April, Lewis and Stacy Chamberlain, Oregon AFSCME Council 75’s executive director and OHSU board member, met with Dr. Danny Jacobs, OHSU’s president, who is Black, along with OHSU’s general counsel, Alice Cuprill Comas. She told them that in reviewing discipline and termination records of AFSCME employees, she discovered that ethnic and racial minorities were fired more often, disciplined more often and terminated while on probation more often than white employees. When the latter happens, the union can’t contest the firing.
As an example of all those instances, Lewis cited 11 employees who were fired, disciplined or who quit to avoid being terminated from October 2018 through March 2021 and whose racial or ethnic background was known. Six were Black, Latino, Asian or Hispanic — more than 50%. Another two were from other countries, another group that Lewis said OHSU targets.
Less than 20% of AFSCME members at OHSU are racial or ethnic minorities, union documents show.
Lewis said she was blunt with Jacobs.
“What I told Dr. Jacobs to his face (is that) what you have is a bunch of racists in your HR and management ranks and they're hiding behind their Black president saying, look, we're not racist because the president is Black,” Lewis said. “He got plenty of shocks and surprises in that meeting.”
She said he responded by saying he had changed the chain of command, making the head of human resources report directly to him. But Lewis said that hasn’t helped. She said she told him that “if that person was ethical and honest, then everything I'm telling you about today, you would already know before I showed up in this meeting.”
OHSU declined to comment on the meeting.
Three weeks afterwards, AFSCME sent a letter to OHSU, detailing recent incidents that it said were indicative of deep-seated racism at OHSU. One involved a white supervisor, identified as M.M, who the union had complained about, the letter said, adding that she got preferential treatment compared with an AFSCME-represented worker. “The employer found it necessary to remove (an) Hispanic male subordinate employee, alleged to have committed bullying and harassment in the workplace, but chose to ignore white female manager MM’s documented and substantiated incidents of bullying and harassment in the workplace, leaving her in a position to continue her destructive and abusive behavior,” the letter said.
The letter complained about an anti-racist memorandum of understanding that OHSU proposed to the union in September 2020. It requested the union’s permission to immediately fire employees who’ve committed racist acts and not go through progressive disciplinary actions, as required in the union contract.
The letter questioned why OHSU would come up with such a policy “when it had already imposed the same penalty on BIPOC employees, absent permission/consent of the union.”
Much of the letter detailed demands. They included:
- Have the state Bureau of Labor and Industries and federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission audit affirmative action and human resources disciplinary records because “OHSU cannot be trusted to police itself.”
- Have BOLI and EEOC teach all employees about their rights. “OHSU’s AAEO process has proved defective and harmful to the members of our bargaining unit,” the letter said.
- Fire every human resources and management official who has committed discrimination or harassment at work.
- Create a board to review past discipline and make mistreated employees whole.
- Terminate all managers and supervisors with a documented history of bullying, harassment and discrimination.
Lewis said the union has yet to receive a response. Again, OHSU did not respond to a request for comment by The Lund Report.
But there have been changes at OHSU. Laura Stadum is no longer head of affirmative action at OHSU or its Title IX coordinator, a job that entailed enforcing the anti-sex discrimination law. An internal announcement said she had moved on to a position with the Office of Information Privacy. Sources told The Lund Report that soon after that was announced OHSU dissolved its Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity unit and asked all the workers there to reapply for their jobs.
On its internal website, administrators said they were embarking on a multi-year drive to collect employee data to weed out bias.
“Becoming an anti-racist organization that embraces all people and cultures ia a priority for OHSU,” the statement read. “If we’re willing, our collective differences allow us to understand patients better, promote creativity in research, foster a better place to learn and help with collaboration and innovation.”
It said that human resources will develop an anti-racism plan to diversify its workforce. According to AFSCME data from April, the share of American Indians and Alaskan Natives at OHSU (0.6%) was less than the proportion in Multnomah County (1.4%) and in Oregon (1.8%). The percentage of Black employees (3.3%) was about half the Black population in Multnomah County but higher than the Oregon average (2.2%). OHSU had a much smaller share of Hispanic employees (6.9%) compared with Multnomah County (12%) and Oregon (13.4%).
Asian employees make up a larger share of OHSU’s workforce: 11.4% compared with 8.1% of the residents in Multnomah County and 4.9% of the population of Oregon.
OHSU’s human resources said it will evaluate its employment related practices over the “next several years.”
“We’ll monitor and share data so we’re transparent about the impact of these practices, and so you can hold us accountable for progress.”
Lewis was not heartened by the announcement, noting it was buried on the internal website.
Many employees are waiting to see the result of the Holder investigation. Multiple sources have told The Lund Report that there’s a general reluctance on campus to share mistreatment with investigators out of fear of retaliation.
In trying to encourage people to come forward, Holder’s team recently posted an announcement on OHSU’s website that said investigators report to the human resources committee of the Board of Directors — not OHSU management. It said an outside consultant will be conducting focus groups for OHSU employees to express their views anonymously. The note said “no one at OHSU or Covington will know the identity of community members who choose to participate.”
Some Black employees were heartened by this post.
“This will help,” one said.
You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected] or on Twitter @LynnePDX.
Valyria Lewis is dead-on about everything. Sad! Unlike most OHSU employees, Lewis recognizes that the problems are systemic. This fish rots from the head on down and the putrefaction starts with Jacobs and the Board of Trustees and permeates throughout the administration.
I feel terrible for the employees for their misguided expectations for the Holder review. Holder is OHSU's client, and he was hired solely to help OHSU improve its branding. Holder's firm is not going to suggest needed changes that improve OHSU's work climate, such as the five recommendations offered by the AFSCME letter. There is no will in OHSU administration to change or to improve the work environment for employees, students, and faculty. It's all about the profit margin, and stuffing bonus money into their pockets.