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Vero says electric worker has self to blame for harassment

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of April 5, 2012)

Indian-born city employee Keith Srinivasan stood up in 2010 to what he saw as racial and ethnic harassment at the Vero Beach Power Plant, but the City of Vero Beach now claims he started it. Srinivasan also claims discrimination, but the city says no such discrimination has been documented or proven.

The city bungled the handling of the complaints themselves, Srinivasan claims. Then, to make matters worse, he says he was isolated and given no meaningful work for months on end.

In November, Srinivasan and his attorney gave up on Vero Beach City Hall and took the complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The employee now claims not only discrimination and harassment, but also retribution for blowing the whistle on the goings-on at the power plant.

The attorney representing the City of Vero Beach says Srinivasan’s co-workers didn’t harass him and Srinivasan’s supervisors and city hiring managers did not discriminate against him. The city also denies managers mishandled the complaint or retaliated against the whistleblower by warehousing him.

Labor attorney Jason Odom, a member of the beachside law firm of Gould Cooksey Fennell, submitted a position statement on behalf of the city answering the EEOC complaint. 

According to the public records, the city says Srinivasan’s claims of harassment and discrimination are unsubstantiated and undocumented. It’s the city’s position that, by repeatedly venturing out of his regular work space into the control room of the power plant, and by participating in inappropriate and racially charged banter with co-workers in that control room, Srinivasan actually provoked and even encouraged the comments that he later found offensive.

“No one felt that Charging Party (Srinivasan) was the target of intentional harassment,” Odom wrote. “Charging Party himself originated some of the discussions.”

Derogatory remarks Srinivasan made about the poverty and sanitary conditions in his native country of India, the city claims, opened the door for power plant staffers to call him names.

“Charging Party was known to tell Plant employees that his native country of India ‘stunk’ and you could even smell it from the airplane before you landed. Charging Party told the Plant employees that the conditions of India were similar to what was portrayed in the movie ‘Slum Dog Millionaire,’” Odom stated. “It was Charging Party’s own negative commentary on India that led to discussions between Charging Party and his co-workers about the conditions of India, but no one heard anyone make derogatory comments about Charging Party’s national origin.”

As previously reported in Vero Beach 32963 in 2010, Srinivasan said he had been addressed as “Bin Laden,” “Saddam Hussein,” a “camel jockey” and as a “towel head” by co-workers over a period of time. He also said his co-workers called his Mexican wife and children “wetbacks.”

The comments about his family, especially about his wife’s weight, the city says, were also the result of conversations Srinivasan started because he told the guys he liked “bigger girls.” The term “wetbacks” was found to be used loosely around the power plant, even by one Mexican employee in reference to himself. Because of this, Srinivasan allegedly should not have taken offense at the comments about his kids.

But the bottom line of the city’s response is that if Srinivasan had just stayed away from his co-workers at the power plant, everything would have been fine.

“Charging Party’s claims of harassing conduct, and his own conduct, occurred almost exclusively in the Control Room. Charging Party was supposed to be working in the Administrative Offices during these times, and he had no work related reasons to be in the Control Room bantering back and forth with the Plant operators,” Odom wrote.

Because Srinivasan could not list specific dates that the alleged comments were uttered or document details to support his claims, and because not all the statements could be corroborated by other power plant employees, the city says they’re unsubstantiated. This is despite the fact that the city’s own investigators found a “locker room” culture at the power plant, and Srinivasan claims the comments were ongoing.

Srinivasan claimed he was discriminated against because of race and not provided equal access to training on two software programs, iMaint and Acess 2007. He also claims he was denied training that would have allowed him to obtain an American Society of Engineers license.

“Jim Stevens, Director of Power Services, stated that Charging Party did not need any of this training to do his job.  In fact, Charging Party himself fails to cite any evidence that he needed this specific type of training to perform his assigned duties,” the response states.

In summary, the city denies anything illegal took place, before or after Srinivasan’s complaints.

“Simply put, there is no evidence whatsoever that Charging Party was subjected to discrimination because of his race or any other protected characteristic,” Odom wrote.

In Vero’s defense, Odom argues the city investigated the complaint and disciplined the three employees with suspensions from work, not for acts of blatant discrimination or harassment – but only for participating in or allowing “banter” with Srinivasan. The city also brought in a counselor to conduct sensitivity training with power plant staff and removed the complainant from the hostile situation.

“The sessions were well received and educational for all employees,” the city’s response states, with no backup documentation for that claim.

Prior to farming out that training to a professional, however, the city tried to handle it in house, with a meeting at the power plant conducted by Power Resources Director Jim Stevens. Audio tapes of that meeting, obtained by Vero Beach 32963 in November 2010, revealed that, even during the training session, employees were permitted to use racially disparaging terms and to make inappropriate, racially charged jokes.

Odom asserts that it cannot be shown Srinivasan was denied any promotions before or after filing the complaint, because Srinivasan did not list dates he applied for promotions and was denied on the basis of race.

“The Charge claims only denial of training and promotion but does not specify any training or promotions that were denied.  The Internal Complaint made several allegations of discrimination, but none of them had any merit and in fact most of them had nothing to do with Charging Party’s job duties,” Odom wrote.  “As stated above, Charging Party was known to wander around the Plant and spend an inordinate amount of time in the Control Room.”

After he complained to his supervisor during the summer of 2010 and then made a formal, internal complaint in October 2010, Srinivasan was put on paid leave and relocated to an office upstairs at city hall where he claims he was warehoused with nothing to do for months on end.

“At that time, there were no open positions for which Charging Party was qualified to work.  Respondent was ultimately able to work out a resolution whereby Charging Party could perform his job duties remotely from City Hall.  Charging Party reported back to work at the same rate of pay and benefits, and performed his same job duties,” Odom said.

E-mails between Srinivasan and his supervisors in late 2010 and early 2011 show that he frequently complained about having nothing to do, that his whole day consisted of a handful of reports that he could complete in minutes. He offered to help other workers and repeatedly asked for more tasks and for training.

In response to the claims of warehousing, the city also says those are false, since Srinivasan retained his same salary and job title and, on paper at least, his same job duties.

Finally, in November, new City Manager Jim O’Connor transferred Srinivasan to the public works department where he now works as a global information systems technician.

Odom has requested the EEOC issue a “no cause” finding in the case. The city and Srinivasan still await the EEOC’s ruling on the complaint.