USDA settles six-year-old discrimination lawsuit

The U.S. Department of Agriculture last week settled a six-year-old sexual harassment class action lawsuit in federal court in Oakland, Calif. The settlement allows more than 5,800 former and current female employees to file individual suits for alleged offenses dating back to 1994. The settled case was sparked by an earlier class action that dated from 1973, in which female employees sued the Forest Service in California for discrimination in hiring and promotion decisions. A 1981 consent decree settled that case, and the terms of that decree were to remain in effect until 1986. But in December 1995, Forest Service employees Ginelle O'Connor and Lesa Donnelly sued Agriculture for subjecting them and other female employees to gender-based discrimination, alleging that the earlier class action invited backlash from male co-workers. Some of the abuse included physical assaults, rape threats and stalking. "At that time all I was asking for was a letter of apology," Donnelly said about her initial sexual harassment case. But when she received calls from other women claiming harassment, she took her complaints to the regional office, "thinking that they are going to want to hear that these woman are being harassed like this," she said. Instead, officials from the regional office threatened to fire her for conspiring against them, gave her bad performance ratings and placed her under investigation for misconduct, Donnelly said. By 1996, the reprisals increased to the point where "the agency took all my duties away and I had no job from 1996 to 2000," Donnelly said. Donnelly's case, which started with 50 women in 1995, was certified as a class action suit in March 1997 with more than 500 women. "They were just chased out of their jobs," Donnelly said. "And all during that time [Agriculture officials] said this is just your agenda, Lesa, these things aren't really happening." Under the settlement, Agriculture agreed to require the Forest Service in California to put in place special civil rights enforcement programs and personnel training. It also requires the agency to set up an Equal Employment Opportunity processing unit to investigate and resolve sexual harassment and hostile environment claims. For Donnelly, as long as women continue to be harassed, the fight isn't over. "I'm hoping we'll be able to institutionalize these things so that if women do come forward, management will take action, and the perpetrators will be held accountable," Donnelly said. Lawrence Lucas, president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, said the settlement is "a stunning victory for those women…who have fought so hard for civil rights in the USDA." In recent years, Agriculture has been the subject of several class action lawsuits filed by farmers and department employees alleging discrimination against African Americans. Lucas lamented the waste of taxpayer resources used to settle the Donnelly case, which he said might have been resolved long ago with a written apology. "What the government should be doing in lieu of having these long protracted lawsuits, is working diligently to resolve all of these class actions lawsuits at the lowest level and resolve them so that the taxpayers will not have to bear the burden," Lucas said. In October, former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman hired three firms to go into field offices and review office operations, interview witnesses, determine why complaints persist and identify factors that contribute to discrimination at the agency. "This settlement should be a signal for the new [Bush] administration to not make the mistakes of the last [presidential administration] and make sure that civil rights are a priority and are taken more seriously in 2001 and beyond," Lucas said.
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