The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, which perhaps more than any government body in Oregon has strived for racial equity, finds itself accused of discriminating against a group of temporary employees hired for their culturally specific identities or skills.
These workers, called “limited duration employees,” got the same base pay, benefits and union protections as permanent county employees—and did much of the same work.
But in an indignant letter they sent to commissioners last week, the limited duration employees say they didn’t receive the same extra compensation as permanent employees also working to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are experiencing real-time the exploitation of a diverse workgroup through intentional actions and inactions of various levels of health department leaders,” the employees wrote in the Jan. 3 letter.
The charge of exploitation highlights the challenge the county faces in convincing its workforce that its actions match its rhetoric.
In 2017, Tricia Tillman, who had just been ousted as the county’s public health director, leveled charges of systemic racism at the county, an accusation that caused the resignation of her boss. After a hearing in which a dozen employees testified about similar experiences, County Chair Deborah Kafoury pledged reforms. “I am promising that we can and must do better for people of color,” Kafoury said then.
But Jesse Hyatt, one of the limited duration employees, says when the county late last year announced extra compensation for employees affected by the pandemic, it stiffed those who’d been brought on specifically to help with COVID-19.
“They sent out a communication announcing a win for employees,” Hyatt says. “But [temporary employees] said, ‘Hey, we were excluded.’”
As the Omicron variant spikes COVID-19 infections to record levels, some things have not changed: White, middle-class Oregonians are more likely to get vaccinated, less likely to get infected, and less likely to get hospitalized or die if they do contract the virus.
Early on, Multnomah County recognized the pandemic was poised to exacerbate health disparities—and staffed up accordingly.
The county sought new recruits equipped to help reach communities of color, immigrants and other groups disproportionately at risk from the virus. In human resources terminology, those job candidates possessed “knowledge, skills and abilities” to connect with hard-to-reach groups.
“Approximately 50% of our team hold language and/or culture KSAs,” the Jan. 3 letter from the workers says.
The 115 limited duration employees have filled a variety of roles, county spokeswoman Julie Sullivan-Springhetti says, including “contact tracing, congregate care setting response, vaccination clinics, testing, shelter operations, administrative and clerical functions, and emergency response work.”
On Nov. 23, Hyatt contacted county chief operating officer Serena Cruz warning her of what he called in an email a “potential iceberg ahead that the county should be able to steer around.”
Specifically, the county had notified employees working at home because of the pandemic that they would get either a $500 stipend for home office equipment or $40 a month to defray internet costs.
Limited duration employees weren’t offered that compensation, despite facing the same expenses.
“While many permanent employees were able to take desks, monitors, chairs and essential equipment from the office,” the Jan. 3 letter to the commissioners noted, “many of us had to equip our homes to accommodate teleworking.”
In his communication with Cruz, Hyatt, who is also executive director of the Black American Chamber of Commerce, cited the national context.
“Currently the country is on the crest of a wave, with the verdict of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial and the impending Ahmaud Arbery verdict, many are emotionally primed,” Hyatt wrote. “Where I see the biggest risk to the county is in all these events crashing into each other. I see a path forward that can calm the issue before it becomes a roar.”
But in a response that took nearly a month to deliver, Cruz said she couldn’t help.
“This is a matter that must be negotiated with our unions,” Cruz wrote Dec. 22. “I am hopeful that we may come to an agreement, but I ask you for your patience, because it may take some time.”
Hyatt says given the large budget surplus the county announced late last year and the massive federal stimulus and COVID-19 money flowing through county coffers, he found Cruz’s response disappointing.
“We are all very frustrated,” Hyatt says. “Given the circumstances, we’re being treated like second-class citizens.”
Sullivan-Springhetti notes that all employees, whether they are limited duration or not, did get a one-time, $1,500 hazard paycheck. She denies the county is discriminating against anybody and says, according to the terms of its contract with AFSCME, the county cannot unilaterally compensate limited duration employees.
“The rules are the same for all limited duration employees, whether or not they have a culturally specific skill requirement,” Sullivan-Springhetti says. “Decisions on offering the telework stipend also were not based on employee demographics but the limited expected length of service.” She adds the county is currently talking to the union about paying stipends to the aggrieved workers.
Hyatt says it’s hard for him and his colleagues, who are disproportionately people of color, to accept how they’ve been treated. He says the county’s actions speak louder than its words. “This disconnect,” he says, “is just another example that highlights systemic issues that still permeate the fabric of the county today.”
Kafoury says such complaints aren’t consistent with the culture she’s built over the past four years through investments in training, education and compliance.
“I have kept my promise to our workforce and community to do everything I can to promote equity in the Multnomah County workforce,” she says. “This transformation is not complete, but it has profoundly changed our organization and, as a result, we are much more effective in our ability to serve our community, especially during a once-in-a-century pandemic.”