A 110-page investigative report documents a hostile work environment experienced by a female attorney of color in the agency’s new paid family leave program.
By Rob Manning (OPB)
An exhaustive, 110-page investigative report into allegations of discrimination from a former staff person of color has concluded that she experienced “racism, gender bias and microaggressions” on the job at the Oregon Employment Department.
The outside investigation sheds light on the racial and gender dynamics as a new division was taking shape under duress at the agency during the economic fallout of COVID-19.
Isela M. Ramos Gonzalez, an operations and policy analyst within OED’s Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance Division, resigned in a terse email on Oct. 8, 2021. Ramos Gonzalez is Latina and a practicing attorney.
In her resignation, Ramos Gonzalez alleged “discrimination based on my race, ethnicity, and gender” and said she “experienced a hostile work environment.” In announcing she would leave the agency on Oct. 22, Gonzalez said her treatment signaled problems for the new division, saying the “environment, implementation and policy direction of PFMLI and OED are inconsistent with internal state policies, applicable laws, and democracy.”
Her message led to an outside investigation by the labor law firm Barran Liebman.
A year and a half later, Barran Liebman’s investigation details microaggressions and discriminatory practices that festered with little intervention by supervisors. The tensions only made life harder for program staff as they worked to set up a groundbreaking state program for supporting workers who needed paid time off to deal with personal or family challenges.
The report steers clear of pointing the finger at agency head David Gerstenfeld, referred to in the report as “Mr. Acting Agency Director.” Instead, investigators point to an overstretched department attempting to build a regulatory framework and functioning bureaucracy in the middle of a pandemic, under the watch of a division director with a passive leadership style.
Paid Leave Oregon’s delays and dysfunction
The Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance program, or Paid Leave Oregon, was created by the Oregon Legislature in 2019. The goal was to pay people as they take time away from work for challenging circumstances, such as having a baby, recovering from a long-term illness, caring for a loved one or escaping domestic violence.
It was originally intended to have rules in place by late 2021, with employees and employers paying in by early 2022. A delay in the rollout of the paid leave program was allowed by legislation in 2021. The system only started accepting payments at the beginning of this year and isn’t slated to pay out benefits until September. The delay was largely blamed on complications created by the pandemic.
The economic fallout from COVID-19 and the businesses that were closed through government rules led to an overwhelming workload at OED’s Unemployment Insurance Division, particularly in 2020, with some claimants waiting months to get payments. An audit by the Oregon secretary of state’s office detailed problems within the agency at the time, including an outdated computer system, unclear policies and other inefficiencies.
At the same time, staff members of color at the agency were complaining about a hostile work environment, as reported by a former OED employee in interviews with OPB in November 2021, and now in the experience of Paid Leave Oregon analyst Ramos Gonzalez.
Ramos Gonzalez’s 7 months working on family leave program
Ramos Gonzalez had started working in the paid family leave program in April 2021. Within seven months, she resigned.
Her experience in the agency, as detailed by investigators, shows a pattern of being treated with less respect than her peers, being questioned and undermined, and experiencing frequent microaggressions, all amid a workplace culture that resisted change, lacked strong leadership, and was not always in step with the state’s goals of equity and inclusion.
Investigators report that one of Ramos Gonzalez’s peers would typically receive “higher level work” than Ramos Gonzalez would receive. When Ramos Gonzalez offered advice — such as sharing her opinion as an attorney that the family leave appeals process needed to mirror the one used for unemployment claims — her suggestion wasn’t accepted “until a white Department of Justice attorney and a white Administrative Law Judge agreed.”
Ramos Gonzalez described repeated instances of microaggressions, such as having a colleague use the word “aliens” in reference to people who don’t have legal work status. The employee responded to her dismissively, saying “whatever you want to call them.” At a meeting in September 2021, Ramos Gonzalez’s colleagues and manager discussed a recent trip she’d taken to Mexico. Ramos Gonzalez found the conversation uncomfortable, as a colleague referred to Mexico as “exotic” and her manager characterized the trip as a “vacation” even though the manager knew it was for grieving and religious purposes.
By September, Ramos Gonzalez had gotten permission from the deputy director of the paid family leave program not to attend certain team meetings, called the “daily scrum.” She had received permission “not to attend those meetings because she had experienced racism, sexism, and a hostile work environment during the meetings” investigators learned from Ramos Gonzalez and the deputy director. Other team members weren’t aware that she was no longer attending, and at one session, they started wondering aloud where she was. One called her “MIA.” Another suggested putting her face on a milk carton, like a missing person.
Report shows complicated layers at paid leave division
As the investigative report points out, microaggressions by definition don’t have to be intentionally hurtful to have an impact. In several cases, the report suggests the white supervisors and colleagues involved didn’t appear to understand how their language or behavior was being received by a professional woman of color, such as Ramos Gonzalez.
In one example, a white colleague concluded in a conversation the limits of Ramos Gonzalez’s authority at the agency, saying that “[Ramos Gonzalez] could take certain action once [her manager] and [her peer] approved her to do so.” The colleague thought she was “recapping” a conversation. Ramos Gonzalez objected, feeling minimized. A department equity officer told investigators “I could see the microaggression quite plainly.”
Ramos Gonzalez was hired into a new division at an agency that was expected to change its own culture, and not continue “inequities and disparities” in other parts of the Employment Department, such as the unemployment insurance program. The investigation concludes that Ramos Gonzalez experienced firsthand, and more directly than other employees, resistance to change among agency employees.
“Those individuals, including [Ramos Gonzalez], who were actively invested in advancing those improvements, particularly where related to equity and access, were therefore more frequently met with resistance and frustration,” the investigative report said.
Some in leadership positions at the agency expressed similar sentiments to investigators, such as the acting deputy director of the paid leave program, who like all others isn’t named in the report.
“I think there were all kinds of layers going on,” the program deputy director is quoted saying in the report. “There are people who are long-standing state employees who have never really done any other job besides line level work at the Employment Department [who] were resistant.”
Another layer that the report touches on is Ramos Gonzalez’s professional manner, as a former litigator, which came across as “abrasive” to some at the agency. At points in the report, staffers suggest that Ramos Gonzalez was being too direct in her communications and seemed “challenging” in tone.
Agency leader escapes blame, other administrators found lacking
The cultural problems at the paid leave program were largely laid at the feet of a “passive” acting director of the division, Gerhard Taeubel, who led the program until Karen Humelbaugh took over in November 2021. Staff members described the acting director as “a very nice and intelligent man, but very passive, and as a result, not an active leader.” But the leadership vacuum went beyond the director, to the team that surrounded him.
“Where witness opinions diverged on multiple other topics, there was a uniform perspective that leaders of the group were unengaged, inconsistent, uncommunicative, and unable to guide their team members through the development and implementation of the program,” the investigative report said.
That group included Ramos Gonzalez, as well as her supervisor and the program’s deputy director.
Some staff members who spoke to investigators pointed fingers at the agency head, Acting Director David Gerstenfeld. One administrator suggested that Gerstenfeld favored the views of people he had hired himself and had worked with for some time over the perspectives of people who were newer to the agency. The investigative report didn’t support that assertion.
The acting director’s statements in the investigative report are a reminder that the cultural problems, leadership difficulties and program delays were all happening within an agency that was simultaneously overwhelmed by attempting to provide benefits to cover pandemic-related economic losses. Gerstenfeld was increasingly pulled away from priorities elsewhere in the agency to focus exclusively on the acute problems with the unemployment program. He said, in terms of managing paid family leave, he had little alternative than to support Taeubel, the program director.
“The others absolutely didn’t have remotely the right level of state experience. Or [of] the people who did know our Agency, I don’t think they had prior management experience, so it was a non-starter,” the investigative report quotes from the acting agency director.
The report acknowledges that the culture and operation of the paid leave program are ultimately the responsibility of the person at the top of the agency — Gerstenfeld — as the acting director. And the investigation concludes that leaders of the paid leave program weren’t getting the support they needed to perform the enormous task of standing up a new program in the middle of a pandemic. But the pandemic is in part why Gerstenfeld was given a pass.
The report says “based on a preponderance of the evidence” that Gerstenfeld and the agency as a whole didn’t provide the support the new paid leave program needed. At the same time, the report excused the shortcoming, saying “the extreme circumstances of the pandemic prevented them from reasonably providing additional support beyond the measure given.”
While the investigation largely spares Gerstenfeld from blame, it does acknowledge the agency director took action that had a negative effect on Ramos Gonzalez, including statements the acting director made after she had emailed her resignation on Oct. 8. Gerstenfeld briefly discussed the discrimination complaint and plans for an outside investigation at a media briefing in October. He didn’t go into details or mention Ramos Gonzalez by name.
In an Oct. 20 email obtained by OPB, sent two days before she was due to leave the agency, Ramos Gonzalez complained that Gerstenfeld discussing her complaint was “unlawful, intimidating, and coercive.”
OED responds by highlighting recent progress on equity, diversity
Along with the investigative report, Oregon Employment Department officials released a lengthy statement Thursday detailing diversity efforts at the agency and within the paid leave program itself.
“What the complainant experienced was completely unacceptable and goes against the values we hold at the Oregon Employment Department. Equity and inclusion aren’t an option for us. It’s how we do business,” Gerstenfeld said in the statement. “We didn’t wait for this report to take action.”
OED’s statement goes on to note the hire of Karen Humelbaugh, who started shortly after Ramos Gonzalez left, and her assembly of “an almost entirely new leadership team.” The statement says “about half” of the new leadership team identifies as people of color, about 30 paid leave staff are bilingual, and the agency has started working with a consulting firm on racial equity training.
In addition, the agency says it has formed a data team to look at racial disparities in the family leave program, translated materials into at least five languages, and is meeting with “Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander and Tribal communities to ensure that equity and racial justice are centered in our budget process.”
The 110-page report from Barran Liebman documented events, interviewed staff members and drew conclusions. It didn’t offer recommendations.
“This investigation was limited to factfinding only.”
Editor’s note: Barran Liebman is an OPB sponsor.
FEATURED IMAGE: The Oregon Employment Department, pictured in this undated file photo, is in charge of the state’s new Paid Leave Oregon program. An investigation released in April 2023 found merit to an employee’s complaints of racism and gender bias within the paid family leave division. (Chris Lehman / KLCC)