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Harassment, slurs draw slap on wrist

(Week of January 6, 2011)

Documents detailing discrimination and harassment at the Vero Beach Power Plant were released Monday, with the city issuing a slap on the wrist to employees accused of tormenting an Indian coworker over several years.

Despite clear evidence and admissions of racial slurs and disparaging comments over several years’ time, the city suspended two employees for three days and one employee for five, and then will return the employee who filed the complaint back to the power plant. The investigation also recommends group counseling for power plant staff to end the “lockeroom  mentality” that exists there.

In its usual haphazard way of dealing with a crisis, the city released the investigation’s finding to the press first with the victim learning of the developments through online media reports. The Vero Beach City Council was never shown a copy of the complaint during the investigation and members were briefed on the suspensions after news reports had surfaced.

The man who filed the complaint, Keith Srinivasan,  said he and his wife can work to get over the sensitive information contained in the 65-page report. “We knew it would all come out,” he said.

But he’s having trouble adjusting to is the fact that after his paid administrative leave ends, he will have to return to the same facility where he was harassed and resume working with the same colleagues who made fun of his wife, his ethnic background and threatened him. Srinivasan is from India.

“I’m very apprehensive about going back there,” he said, adding that he has concerns about his personal safety and that of his wife and children.

The big blue power plant is a secure facility surrounded by chain-link fences where employees are basically locked in and many work around the clock on shifts staffing the generation units and monitoring equipment. It’s an isolated and insular place, where the culture is “what happens at the power plant stays at the power plant,” Srinivasan stated in his complaint.                   Among other things, he accused co-workers of racial slurs, derogatory language about him and his family, and of calling him names like “Bin Laden” and “Saddam Hussein.” One employee threatened to go get a gun from his locker to use against Srinivasan.

Recently, Srinivasan applied for a job in the Transmission and Distribution division but was turned down. He’s expressed interest about other posted jobs, but was told they were being filled internally -- by other people.

After he filed his complaints, investigators recommended removing Srinivasan from the workplace, putting him on paid leave before Thanksgiving.

But after a recommended group therapy session with a psychotherapist, the city is hopeful that everyone can get along. The investigator also recommended the therapist meet with Power Resources Director Jim Stevens to emphasize how destructive harassing behavior can be in the workplace.

Stevens was also accused of harassment in Srinivasan’s complaint, and is on record via audiotape being openly insensitive to the issue and repeating ethnic slurs used by employees without scolding them.  No disciplinary action is being taken against Stevens.

Mayor Jay Kramer, as of Monday afternoon, had not yet been briefed on the findings of the investigation. Kramer said Interim City Manager Monte Falls had told him of the existence of a complaint -- but not of the substance -- and gone over the procedures by which the city had hired a Miami law firm to investigate. The City Council was not provided a copy of the complaint to give members a heads up about what might be coming to light regarding the behavior in their power plant.

“Well, it’s up on the internet now, so I guess it’s out for everyone to see,” Kramer said, having still not received any of the documents from city staff.

Councilwoman Tracy Carroll had not yet been briefed, but simply said she was “speechless” that those involved with the investigation were recommending psychotherapy to correct the environment at the plant. Vice Mayor Pilar Turner had not been briefed as of Monday afternoon, she said.

Councilman Brian Heady, upon hearing of the developments, said he was appalled that the city, yet again, seems to not be able to successfully handle its problems.

“At the very least, the report should have been released to the employee at the same time that it was released to the City Manager, the City Clerk and to the press,” Heady said, having not received a copy himself on Monday afternoon.

Actually, the City Clerk knew nothing of the report until after web news stories were posted.

Srinivasan told Vero Beach 32963 that he’s consulted with an attorney who is prepared to sue, but that he did not pursue that line of action. He was waiting to see how the city handled the investigation and what discipline was handed down.

“All the attorney wanted to do was to sue for millions of dollars in federal court and that’s not what I’m after,” Srinivasan said. “All I’m after is being able to have a non-hostile work environment.”