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

Categories: Law, Minneapolis
SeemaDesai.jpg
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.)

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10 comments
starlight2me
starlight2me

Good for you Desai! It is true Velma Korel is a Bully. Persons who worked where she was in a high position, were so terrified for their jobs they felt they could not complain. Or, they simply left (if they complained they might not be able to get employment elsewhere). Still so terrified they will not testify against her. That's how bully's are protected, they create fear. It is a shame that this kind of person is hired to be in charge of Human and Civil Rights Departments that this same kind of treatment is supposed to investigate!  MN Depart. of Human Rights should also be investigated. Governor Dayton, I love you.. I think you are doing a great job. Even before you were elected, people keep leaving or being forced to leave there. Whatever, happened to Civil Service and Civil Service tests? How do so many relatives and friends work at the same small place?  In All State of MN Departments, why, in cases where the workload is completely overwhelming, is this considered NOT a reason to hire more clerical staff or to make a complaint about?  Why do heads of State of MN Departments keep hiring more supervisors, etc., and not more clerical staff to keep up with the work?  A former State of Minnesota Employee

BeenThereHeardThat
BeenThereHeardThat

When Velma was Commissioner of the MN Dept of Human Rights employees heard those same comments during staff meetings.

IBNNNEWS
IBNNNEWS

WOW - maybe someone should get in touch with Sonya A. - former civil rights employee. Her story is out of this world. 

stephansonprop
stephansonprop

Yet another failed government agency, and we want folks like this having anything to do with our health care?

youmayberight
youmayberight

Unfortunately, the City Council committee that oversees the Civil Rights Department -- the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Health Committee -- is enamored by anyone who eliminates a backlog of cases, as happened under Director Korbel. The committee doesn't look to how the backlog was eliminated, let alone to any other allegations of questionable practices.

For example, under Director Korbel's leadership, a secret process was instituted to replace the Civilian Review Authority with the Office of Police Conduct Review. It was kept secret even from the CRA board members, who, when they finally became aware of the process through an unintentional leak, were told they could voice their opinions but no major changes would be made. And the Public Safety Committee keeps putting on its blinders. See no evil, hear no evil.

Julie Kapitan
Julie Kapitan

You go girl! People need to be held accountable.

j.reiter
j.reiter

The only reason she is going public with this is to attempt to garner support from the public. 

I support her, I think the entire managment staff should be fired.  Starting with the Director of the department Velma J. Korbel.  How many other people will now come forward and claim the same abuse?  Korbels hostile management practices are going to lead to hundreds of thousands in relief to people that she abused.  Modern day slave owner.

Copeland
Copeland

The easy thing for Desai to do would be to just stop complaining and enjoy her new job where she is presumably paid for overtime. She didn't do that and instead wants to see the issues addressed. That takes some guts. The decision is likely going to be harder on her than just being quite and moving on.

If the City of Minneapolis wants to restore its reputation of being on the cutting edge of human rights, I think they need to ensure that these sort of allegations are given calm, careful consideration and take all complaints seriously. An analysis from a group outside of the department would seem useful. On the surface, I see a problems for the city. It seems doubtful Desai was just "creating overtime and then complaining about it." If that were truly the case, concerns about efficiency would be reflected in her performance reviews.

kotze
kotze

@Copeland umm... I have it on good authority that her new job has many of the same issues. She isn't the targeted employee because it's still the honeymoon period. 

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