Had a chat with Transportation Secretary Sue Minter about the discrimination lawsuit filed last week by three former VTrans workers. It creates a real dilemma for her; as head of the agency, she’s constrained from addressing the facts of the case. But as a potential gubernatorial candidate, she can’t be seen as anything less than fully supportive of LGBT employment rights, and she certainly can’t even be suspected of tolerating a culture of, ahem, intolerance.
I understand her situation, but that doesn’t make it any less pressing. It’s the fundamental problem with being an administration official while also exploring a candidacy: your first responsibility is to your employer. I imagine that’s why Deb Markowitz decided she had to choose one or the other.
“Obviously, I cannot comment on the specifics of the case,” she said, and added: “Any allegation of discrimination or harassment is very disturbing, and we take it seriously.” She then pivoted to the steps she’s taken to ensure a welcoming workplace.
“When I came into this job, I learned of some very well-known cases that had gone to the Human Rights Commission. I became very concerned. I’ve visited garages, driven snowplows, washed bridges, I’ve been a flagger. I’ve observed so many things, most of them positive, but I know that in any large organization, not everyone is on the same page.
… “We’ve worked hard to build a culture of diversity and tolerance. There is a very clear zero-tolerance policy. We reinforce that through trainings, and make sure everyone understands that the agency should be free of harassment and discrimination. …We’ve made it clear to managers and supervisors that they should respect all complaints. … About one year ago, we updated the Equal Employment Opportunity policy to include gender identity and transgender status as protected classes.”
Which is all very well, but I have a hard time believing the three plaintiffs fabricated their complaints. There’s no real upside to filing a baseless lawsuit or to allowing yourself to be publicly identified as a complainer.
It must be noted, however, that the timing of the suit has a faint odor about it. One of the three plaintiffs left her job in December 2013, and the other two quit last year. How did they happen to come together? Why didn’t they file before now? And how did they come to file suit just as Minter is actively exploring a run for governor?
There may be innocuous explanations for all this. I sure hope it’s not a dirty trick. But if the plaintiffs’ accusations are true, then it doesn’t really matter. If they suffered from exposure to an unacceptably toxic workplace, then agency leaders, including Minter, own a share of responsibility for that. (She wasn’t agency chief when the alleged harassment took place, but she was Deputy Secretary, and she herself says she was hands-on involved in workplace-culture issues.)
No matter what the truth may be, Sue Minter is in an uncomfortable situation. Even if she quit VTrans tomorrow, she’d still be on the witness list, and probably couldn’t say any more than she already has.
And if a bunch of highway hooligans manage to derail the gubernatorial candidacy of the only prominent woman considering a run, well, that’d be a sad irony indeed.