Quit Your Bellyachin'!

The City of Miami's version of the EEOC hasn't upheld a discrimination claim in years

Jean Dorce sees it quite clearly: He was laid off from his City of Miami job because he is Haitian. To him, no other explanation makes sense. "They laid off all the Haitians," says Dorce, referring to himself and two other Creole-speaking job counselors who lost their jobs in December. "They kept Hispanics and African Americans. Why not the Haitians?"

While City Manager Ed Marquez maintains that Dorce's layoff was crisis-mandated budget cutting, Dorce argues that he was paid from a grant that had already been awarded, so how could his layoff have saved the city any money? In late January he filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency whose mandate is to identify and remedy workplace discrimination.

Unfortunately, the EEOC is also a painfully slow bureaucracy. So overworked and understaffed are the agency's investigators that claims take -- on average -- more than a year to check out. Dorce's case is pending.

He did have an alternative to the protracted wait: City of Miami employees can have their complaints addressed internally, with the Office of Equal Opportunity/Diversity Programs (EO/DP). The tiny office in Riverside Center was born of a 1977 consent decree, when the federal government ordered Miami to right its systemic discrimination against women and minorities. Responsibility for complying with the decree was divided between the city's departments of human resources and internal audits. In 1994, in a cost-cutting move, then-city manager Cesar Odio consolidated the duties into one office.

Like the federal EEOC, Miami's EO/DP's mandate is to protect workers from all sorts of discrimination, whether due to age, sex, national origin, or anything else. Unlike the federal agency, Miami's EO/DP is theoretically able to scrutinize complaints in a timely fashion.

Yet Jean Dorce didn't take his grievance to EO/DP, for reasons that are familiar to many of his former co-workers. "There would be no justice done if I went to see them," he explains. "There is nothing I can do for myself by going to the City of Miami to look into that matter. It is a dead issue for them, because they approved it in the first place."

Clearly, as the slow transition from Cesar Odio's reign as city manager to the Marquez administration plods onward, the city's EO/DP office battles an image problem. Perhaps most conspicuously, its investigators have closed 43 straight cases since August 1995 without substantiating a single charge of discrimination. Meanwhile, more than twenty discrimination lawsuits are pending against the City of Miami, according to records on file at the City Attorney's Office; allegations range from sex and age discrimination to violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Many city employees are wary of utilizing the EO/DP option, simply because they perceive the agency to be an organ of the administration.

"It's a credibility problem that we'll have to address," admits Aaron Weeks, chief of staff for Ed Marquez. "The office can't be looked at as an instrument of management -- if that's the case, except for the processing end that the EEOC requires, there really isn't much purpose for it."

Julio Matta concurs. For almost eight years, from 1989 until early 1996, he worked as a senior investigator at the EEOC, where he handled more than 1200 cases. Recently he took a job as an investigator for the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor. Sandwiched between those two federal jobs, he spent seven months working as the main investigator for Miami's EO/DP. And he did not like what he saw.

Although the office had only five people assigned to it, three of Matta's co-workers labored at least part-time in other departments. (The other staffer is a clerk.) Judy Carter, who was installed as EO/DP director when Odio created the office in 1994, also heads the finance department's procurement management division -- a full-time job. Carter says she accepted the EO/DP post (and a ten percent raise) because that's what Odio asked her to do. "We all try to please our bosses," she asserts. "A lot of us had dual roles at the time. I did both to the best of my ability."

Anne Whittaker, who works as a senior EO/DP officer, never sits at her desk in the EO/DP's office, and she has never investigated a discrimination complaint. Instead, she works full-time for Carter in procurement management.

Even Matta's direct supervisor, Maria Ferrer-Miralles, has her own workload burdens. Ferrer-Miralles came to the City of Miami from Fort Worth in 1990 to handle equal opportunity issues for the city's Department of Fire-Rescue. When Cesar Odio assigned her to EO/DP, he did not relieve her of her other responsibilities; Matta says she spends "90 percent" of her time at Fire-Rescue.

Matta, hired as the department's dedicated investigator, was assigned the bulk of the department's discrimination probes. Although he did not substantiate a single instance of discrimination in his time at EO/DP, he says he tried hard to be fair. "The City of Miami doesn't have a big discrimination problem, but it does happen," he says. "I don't mess around when it comes to equal opportunity -- a wrong decision could have an adverse affect. I've seen EEOC cases where a family was destroyed because a person lost a job. I had two cases commit suicide because the process was so slow. I don't take EO lightly."

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