County employees file discrimination lawsuit

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Three employees of Clark County Public Works are suing the county in federal court on allegations they faced racial slurs, higher job scrutiny and unequal payment due to being Latino.

On June 1, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and Seattle-based law firm Breskin, Townsend and Johnson filed the suit in the Western Washington District against the county on behalf of Elias Peña, Isaiah Hutson, and Ray Alanis, employees in Clark County Public Works’ Roads Division. The allegations focused on racially-motivated mistreatment against the plaintiffs, alleging a hostile work environment, disparate treatment and denial of equal protection under the law.

Peña and Hutson worked for the county since at least 2016, the complaint read, with Alanis joining them in the roads division in 2018. All three were allegedly subjected to racial jokes and insults about Latinos and immigrants, ones the complaint calls “oppressive, offensive and (ones that) create an environment that make it more difficult for Plaintiffs to do their jobs.”

The complaint lists out racial slurs that were used, which included calling Latinos “a cancer.”

The complaint states insults were intertwined with threats of violence against Latinos and immigrants, making the plaintiffs afraid to work with some employees and supervisors. In some cases, they were referred to as the “landscaping crew” and the “brown crew,” among other epithets based on their race.

The complaint alleges the plaintiffs were scrutinized more heavily at their jobs by supervisors because they were Latino.

The plaintiffs did not have the same opportunities for additional work, states the complaint, and had to file grievances to be paid the same as non-Latino employees for similar work.

The complaint adds roads division employees “make racial remarks, display derogatory images, and write insulting messages in public areas that humiliate or demean Latino employees.”

One of the plaintiffs was denied the opportunity to quarantine after he was exposed to another county employee who was diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs had reported roads division employees and supervisors’ actions to higher-ups in the county and the county’s human resources department, the complaint read, though the reports weren’t investigated, if not dismissed.

The plaintiffs had filed complaints against the county through a tort claim form with the county’s risk management office, and formal complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Washington State Commission for Human Rights, the complaint read.

In a release announcing the lawsuit, MALDEF President and general counsel Thomas Saenz said it was “imperative, in a national context of increased bias and racism openly expressed, that these workplaces be free of racial harassment and discrimination.”

“Peña, Hutson, and Alanis did what they were supposed to do: report workplace discrimination to their supervisor and the County, but the County dismissed those reports,” MALDEF attorney Andrés Holguin-Flores said in the release. “An employee should be able to inform his or her employer about workplace discrimination and feel confident that the employer will investigate, and if necessary, remedy the harassment to ensure a safe workspace for all employees and community members. No one should work in fear that his or her colleagues and supervisors will treat them differently or with hostility.”

In an email, Clark County Manager Kathleen Otto said the county doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

“With that said, the county has a commitment to provide a work environment free from unlawful discrimination and harassment for its employees, the public it serves and those with whom the county conducts business,” Otto wrote.

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