2013 – Still Racism in the Workplace

The State of NH Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) mission statement is “to join communities and families in providing opportunities for citizens to achieve health and independence.”  An important part of achieving that mission is ensuring cultural differences are understood and accepted.

Regrettably, last fall, racism reared its ugly head for a close-knit group of workers ─ employees at the Rochester District Office who are on the front lines of serving NH’s most vulnerable citizens.  None of them could predict the racist views that would seep into their workplace conversations as Mitt Romney and Barack Obama made their way to the November 2012 presidential election.

It seems that pundits’ bold political rhetoric hitting the radio airwaves triggered a worker to resurrect the use of inappropriate racial references. Upon seeing bags of “Sugar Babies” candies on a desk, the worker told tales about “sugar babies” being a reference for African Americans. The worker was heard to have said, “We used to call them N—Babies, now we call them Obama Babies.”

While this may have been nothing more than an off-hand remark to the worker who made the comment, others, including African American and bi-racial co-workers, who either heard the comment directly or heard of it, received the comment much differently. It was a racial slur and they were understandably astonished and offended.

In retelling their experience to their union steward and chapter leadership at the time, the full context of the incident was made clear.  In an effort to address this racism in the workplace, which employees believed was harming the workforce’s ability to meet the DHHS mission well, the incident was reported to Commissioner Toumpas.

The DHHS Ombudsman conducted an investigation that was reported by the Commissioner’s Office to be consistent with the federal Office of Civil Rights standards.  The employees were interviewed; later they were told that no laws were broken and the employee who had made the “sugar babies” reference was not a racist and felt sorry for the remarks.  Shortly thereafter, that same employee received a promotional transfer.

Had the references been spoken in some historical reflection of how far our country had come in moving beyond racism and discrimination, I suspect many employees in the Rochester office would have cringed a bit in hearing the comments; but they may have appreciated receiving that perspective. Unfortunately, that was not the case.  Members I met with strongly believe the worker was truly revealing their own racist views.

In the weeks that followed my initial involvement with this issue, I confirmed that DHHS still maintained a cultural sensitivity training module on the DHHS Knowledge Center (an electronic center of information on DHHS pcs), as well as one on social role valorization, and that several of the Rochester workers hadn’t even known of the training material.  I also found out that DHHS had not been able to ensure that workers were appropriately and regularly trained on cultural diversity.

Although the Commissioner’s Office told me they did everything they were supposed to do to investigate and respond to the incident report, I remembered better years.  There was a time when we were so vigilant in making sure the workplace would remain free from such behavior that any inkling of a problem that surfaced would have resulted in trainers or Employee Assistance Program staffers coming into the office to do refresher training that would invite open dialogue, which would lead to healing.

The reporting workers remaining in Rochester feel certain their reports were not taken seriously. So, they have decided to dedicate their energies to improving DHHS’ vigilance against permitting racism and discriminatory behavior in the workplace again.

Since DHHS doesn’t have the resources to resurrect vigilant training and monitoring of these behaviors, the Rochester members are going to work together through their chapter to do their own training and develop their own plan to make sure things improve.  This is a great way to bring SEA members together, through their chapter, to make a big difference.  If you have experienced racism in the workplace, please contact SEA Field Representative Andy Capen at acapen@seiu1984.org.  Together, members can do a lot.

Afterward ─  Rochester workers who found the aforementioned incident offensive have reason to be committed to preventing it from happening again.  The same worker was recently heard making inappropriate references again – this time after African American clients had just been served and walked away.  And while we can all love a good piece of fried chicken, workers know that quips about what some clients are eating for dinner are just completely inappropriate and offensive racism shielded as something innocent.

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