Quit Your Bellyachin'!

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."

He quickly came to believe that he was the only person in Miami who felt that way. In a rambling six-page resignation letter to Marquez in late February, Matta accused Ferrer-Miralles of "playing politics" with her position by declining to substantiate claims if they involved top city officials. He also asserted that he was far better trained as an investigator than either Ferrer-Miralles or Carter.

"Neither of them could read the statutes," says the former EO/DP staffer. "I could put case law information in their faces and they wouldn't know how to read it. I think I have the expertise to recognize what is wrong. They, on the other hand, would always come up with their own personal philosophies -- that there could be a personal conflict or something. I said, 'Okay, fine. You base it on what you think. I'll base it on what I know.'"

In his resignation letter Matta referred to a case involving a Miami police officer that Ferrer-Miralles had found no reason to substantiate. According to Matta, his supervisor closed the case after hearing only the city's side and did not include in her report a response from the officer to the city's explanation. "This makes for an incomplete report that does not give either the feds or the City Attorney's Office adequate facts to make a fully informed decision," he argues. His reports, he adds, were generally six or seven pages long, while Ferrer-Miralles's averaged two pages. Says Matta: "This means that many complaints that could have been settled at the local level land in court unnecessarily." Carter and Ferrer-Miralles both say they're shocked at Matta's characterizations. They defend the performance of their office and say they never "play politics." While both acknowledge that they are spread thin -- Ferrer-Miralles uses the expression "run ragged" -- they say they did what was expected of them. "I feel I never gave this office less than 40 hours per week," declares Ferrer-Miralles. "Many times I'd work at home after dinner, but I'd get it done. I have been in the field for twenty-some years, since 1974. I was an EO officer in the army. I have a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in public affairs. I was recruited in a national talent search. I know what I'm doing."

Carter, who signed off on a 30 percent raise for Matta a month before he quit, adds that she had told Matta that the office's organizational structure was going to change and that his good work would eventually be rewarded. "All he had to do was be patient," she says. "I'm saddened that he feels this way. I hope his hardened heart has softened."

Carter has been removed from EO/DP and assigned full-time to Procurement, with no cut in pay. (She earns $98,000 per year.) Ferrer-Miralles has been named the EO/DP director and given a small raise. She still spends much of her time with Fire-Rescue, though she also passed much of the past two weeks interviewing prospective EO/DP investigators.

Matta does not envy the candidates but says he's not happy at having given up the position. Although his new post pays better, he insists that money wasn't the reason he left.

"I had plans there," he says of the City of Miami. "I had wanted to get my law degree and maybe become an assistant city attorney. But they were not going to make decisions that rock the boat. For me, if it rocks the boat, let it rock. If I am basing my decisions on legal issues that can be substantiated, then let it rock. That's what I am getting paid for.

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Robert Andrew Powell