ITHACA, N.Y. — What’s happening to Karen Baer, director of the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights is wrong. “Karen Baer is being accused of what people who have spoken out against the status quo are always accused of: insubordination, creating dysfunction, making waves,” stated Andrew Celli, an attorney for Baer, at the start of her three-day hearing last December.
Karen has been on administrative leave from her position for almost four months now because she raised concerns about discrimination in the workplace, an activity which is, quite frankly, part of her job description. A hearing process is currently underway to determine the charges against her. She is charged with insubordination, failure to do her duty, and managing a dysfunctional office — all because she insisted that due process be followed before agreeing to be interviewed by an attorney hired by the county to investigate her concerns about discrimination and retaliation.
As members of ACTION (Activists Committed to Interrupting Oppression Now ) we are urging the county to dismiss the charges against Karen Baer and immediately restore her as director of the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights for the following reasons:
1) Tompkins County employees have the legal right to speak out when they see or experience discrimination or injustice in the workplace, especially if they are the director of human rights. Calling out the possibility of racism or sexism or any form of discrimination in the workplace are all protected activities under the federal Civil Rights Act and by New York State Human Rights Law. Even if you make complaints of racial or sex discrimination that are not substantiated, you cannot be disciplined for filing the complaints; to do so is retaliation. In Karen’s case, she was retaliated against not only for voicing complaints about discrimination but also for doing her job.Karen’s claims of discrimination and retaliation were made in good faith. In fact, they are backed up by the county’s 2015 workplace climate survey, that showed that African Americans are among the most dissatisfied employees in the county workforce. According to focus groups, many believe that “if you stand up for diversity or for your rights you will be shut down” which could take the form of “not being promoted, being silenced in some way, or being shunned by colleagues.” Other women and people of color who work for the county feel the same way Karen does. So, this is not a good example for the county to set if it is sincere in its desire to work toward improving the county work environment for all employees.
2) Tompkins County employees are entitled to due process. When a person stands up for what they think is right and they do so in good faith, they are entitled to be treated fairly. In Karen’s case, the county hired an investigator, Mr. Taylor, to look into her claims. He didn’t just investigate her claims and find them to be unsubstantiated. If that’s all there was, we would have been disappointed, but we would have understood because not everybody sees the nuances of racism and misogyny the same way. Mr. Taylor, went much further. He declared Karen insubordinate. He declared the Office of Human Rights dysfunctional, while providing absolutely no evidence to support those findings. He never went to the OHR office or interviewed the staff. In fact, evidence shows that OHR was fully functional and highly effective under Karen Baer’s leadership. In the end, Mr. Taylor’s report was not a fair assessment of Karen’s concerns. Karen received no warning, no progressive discipline (to which she is entitled), no counseling, no negative performance evaluation. Instead, Mike Lane, former Chair of the Legislature, put her on administrative suspension without pay, for being uncooperative with Mr. Taylor’s investigation. She was never given a written or verbal warning, by either the County Administrator or the County Legislature, that if she chose not to be interviewed further by Mr. Taylor she would be disciplined, suspended and possibly dismissed.
In reality, Karen had indeed agreed to cooperate with the investigation once Mr. Taylor sent her in writing what procedures he intended to follow in his investigation. She wanted to understand the rules of the road and ensure that she would not be retaliated against further. She wanted to protect her witnesses. Mr. Taylor agreed to send her the procedures, but never followed through with this request, therefore she did not agree to be interviewed, believing that Mr. Taylor already possessed everything he needed to determine she had, indeed, been unfairly excluded from a number of county opportunities.
Martha Robertson, newly elected Chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, has stated that a county priority goal for 2018 is to work toward achieving a diverse and inclusive workplace. Addressing systemic issues of racism and misogyny is an essential step in cultivating an environment that will support an inclusive workforce. It is essential to support the legal right of those who speak out about discrimination, whether we think their charges are founded or not. We have read the transcripts of the Karen Baer hearing and are very alarmed about what appears to be the lack of due process in this case.
We now have both a new county administration and many new faces on the legislature. Reconciling with Karen Baer, reuniting her with her staff, and embracing her human rights work will send a positive message to the County workforce and the community at large. Because no one should ever be punished for speaking out against discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, especially if you are the director of human rights.
Marcia Baum, Nancy Bereano, Laura Branca, Audrey J. Cooper, Kirby Edmonds, Karen Friedeborn, Jeff Furman, Robbie Sanders, Caleb Thomas, Dr. James Turner, Roberta Wallitt
Transcripts from a portion of the hearing can be read below: