St. Clair County suspends employee who sought investigation

News-DemocratJune 9, 2013 

One of the St. Clair County workers who asked state and federal officials to investigate alleged discrimination against disabled residents by county employees has been suspended without pay for 14 work days.

Roshanda Peppers, the suspended worker, says the punishment is the latest in a string of retaliations from the county after she filed the discrimination complaint.

A letter given to Peppers by Intergovernmental Grants Department Director Debra Moore states Peppers was suspended for incorrectly entering information on reports required from the state. Peppers said the suspension is unwarranted and she would be overstating the number of people helped by county employees should she follow Moore's instructions.

"If you continue to refuse to follow directives from your supervisor, I will have no choice but to terminate your employment," Moore wrote in the letter. Peppers, an assistant in a federally funded jobs program, was given the suspension on Wednesday and will not return to work in the Intergovernmental Grants Department until June 25.

Moore could not be reached for comment, but previously said she has not retaliated against any of her employees. St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern also could not be reached for comment.

Peppers was previously suspended without pay for 10 work days regarding the state reports, which gauge the performance of the county program and are a factor in setting the amount of future federal funds given through the federal Workforce Investment Act.

Since 2009, St. Clair County has received $18.5 million to administer the program, which intends to provide training to low-income and unemployed residents within St. Clair, Monroe, Washington, Randolph and Clinton counties.

The conflict stems from county staff directed to include residents who likely did not receive help through the Workforce Investment program within reports required by the state's Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Peppers said.

The county office houses multiple local, state and federal agencies. To distinguish which agency helped a resident, participants fill out a form after receiving services.

Peppers said she was instructed to include forms not marking which agency helped the resident as receiving help through the Workforce Investment program. Some of the forms were 2 months old and did not show what service the resident received, Peppers said.

The practice bolsters the number of people helped from about 100 each week to more than 400, according to Peppers. State policy prohibits the alleged practice.

If Peppers files a complaint, state officials will investigate whether the Intergovernmental Grants Department exaggerated its reports, according to Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity spokeswoman Sandra Jones. While Peppers said she has contacted four state officials, Jones said Peppers has not filed a complaint with the state's grants manager.

"We take seriously any official complaints we receive alleging employee discrimination, but the agency's primary role is to ensure that the Local Workforce Investment Areas provide services without discrimination -- not to adjudicate general issues of employment law," Jones said of Peppers' suspension.

Retaliation?

Peppers said this is the latest attempt by county officials to punish her for filing complaints alerting state and federal investigators of the alleged discrimination, and for speaking to the News-Democrat about retaliation against county workers.

Peppers said the retaliation includes being demoted to the department's switchboard operator, a position usually staffed with volunteers, senior citizens or youth workers.

The dispute began on Jan. 15, less than two weeks after investigators with the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity concluded the county discriminated against two residents based upon their disabilities.

The report was spurred by complaints filed in 2011 from three employees in the Intergovernmental Grants Department, including a complaint from Peppers.

Investigators also found the county fired another employee in retaliation for filing a discrimination complaint and created a hostile work environment. The News-Democrat obtained the report through the Freedom of Information Act.

Federal agents with the U.S. Department of Labor are currently investigating the county for allegedly discriminating against the disabled and retaliating against the three employees for filing a discrimination complaint with state officials, according to a recent letter sent to Moore and obtained by the News-Democrat through the Freedom of Information Act.

State investigators have ordered one of the employees, Stephanie Webly, reinstated to her former position and given backpay after concluding she was fired in retaliation for filing a discrimination complaint.

Though Webly said a new hire completes those duties while she is repeatedly given minor tasks, and a dispute continues over the amount of her backpay.

Moore previously said the county has followed the directives of the state regarding Webly's reinstatement.

The third employee, Melinda Nicholson, no longer works for the county. Nicholson previously said she was forced to leave her job because of a hostile work environment created by Moore and her subordinates.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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