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Former Mpls Civil Rights Dept employee says bosses exploited her, told her not to complain

Desai says her case "is definitely a product of the culture of the office."
Desai says her case "is definitely a product of the culture of the office."

Seema Desai claims the Minneapolis department tasked with making sure employers treat workers fairly fails on that very score when it comes to its own employees.

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Desai, a 33-year-old former complaint investigation officer for the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, recently filed a complaint against the city alleging that the way her bosses treated her violated the Minnesota Whistleblowers Act. She says she was forced to work overtime without pay, discouraged from raising concerns about her treatment with her union, and was singled out for harassment after she ignored bosses' admonitions and reported her concerns to the city's human resources department.

In a complaint filed in September in Hennepin County court, Desai explains that about a year after she was hired to work for the MDCR in February 2011 -- her job "included investigating complex cases of discrimination and retaliation on behalf of individuals for the MCDR" -- one of her colleagues quit "after filing a grievance and complaining about differential treatment and retaliation" by the city. Then, in August 2012, another colleague was promoted.

But instead of bringing in new workers to fill the void, Desai says her bosses just increased her workload. To make matters worse, Desai says, her superiors refused to pay her overtime and told her not to complain.

During a meeting early this year with Michael Browne, the assistant director of the office of police conduct review, Desai complained about her treatment. She says Browne told her she "should not use the law as a sword" and didn't indicate any willingness to address her concerns. Over the following couple of months, Desai "continued to raise concerns with her supervisors and at division meetings about not being paid overtime, not being properly compensated for working on weekends, being required to 'volunteer' time that employees were not paid for on weekends, and other compensation problems."

Things came to a head this summer after Desai reported her alleged mistreatment to the city's human resources department.

The complaint details what happened from there:

On or about June 25, 2013, the Director of the Department of Civil Rights, Velma Korbel, held a mandatory staff meeting for all staff.

In the meeting, Korbel told all staff, among other things, words to the effect of:

-- "Employees are creating overtime and then complaining about overtime;"

-- Defendant had "no budget for overtime or promotions;"

-- "Negative employees need to move on and find another job;"

-- "Just leave. There's the door;"

-- "Next time we have an employee survey, remember what negative employees are doing, not the managers;"

-- ["Korbel does] not care about the employee survey and it's not [her] fault how employees feel."

Throughout this entire period of time, Desai says her performance reviews were positive and she was "considered a role model" in the office. But about a week after the all-staff meeting, she was suspended for three days without pay. She was told the suspension was because she had "Contribut[ed] to creating a negative and tense work environment" and complained to co-workers "about management requiring you to work overtime and not compensating you for those hours."

In a bizarre twist, shortly before her suspension, a cell phone owned by one of Desai's supervisors was found in a bathroom trashcan. City officials began an investigation ostensibly to determine what happened to the phone, but Desai says she believes it was really "a fishing expedition" to gather information about MDCR employees who were unhappy with their treatment.

"They were asking other employees if they could say anything about me," Desai said in an interview with City Pages. "It was so ridiculous. We were under the assumption that the investigation was about the cell phone, but at the end I was disciplined for complaining about not being paid overtime."

(For more, click to page two.)

 

Finally fed up, Desai quit her job with the city in late July. She alleges that during the last year or so of her employment, the city violated clauses of the Minnesota Whistleblower Act prohibiting "retaliation against employees for reporting violations, suspected violations and/or planned violations of law." She's seeking damages in excess of $50,000 from the city "in an amount to be determined at trial."

In an email, Desai explained why she's going public with her complaint:

I loved my job and the events of the summer were really traumatic for me. I am just now starting to feel some normalcy in my life again. I debated on whether to go to the media at all, but I think it is important for the public to know. The managers created an environment where employees are terrified to speak up for themselves and it is truly unfortunate given the purpose of the Civil Rights Department.

Desai said the MDCR "has a reputation as being really dysfunctional" and "values loyalty over everything else."

"You're told, 'If you file a grievance with your union, you will not have a promotion here,'" Desai said. "Those kinds of scare tactics happen all the time and the irony is we're employment attorneys working on cases where people are subjected to similar types of behavior."

Desai has already found another full-time job, and she characterized the damages she's seeking as "not very much," but says she "wants people to know what's going on."

"The department hires young people who need jobs and aren't going to say anything," she said. "I was one of the first people in three years to file a union grievance."

-- Follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter at @atrupar. Got a tip? Drop him a line at arupar@citypages.com.


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