Fired microbiologist alleges age discrimination, harassment by N.D. Health Department; survey reveals low morale
BISMARCK -- Frustrated with what she perceived as management favoring younger employees over tenured staff, Sandra Young was talking to co-workers about losing a promotion to an attractive twentysomething staffer when she grabbed her breasts and ...
BISMARCK -- Frustrated with what she perceived as management favoring younger employees over tenured staff, Sandra Young was talking to co-workers about losing a promotion to an attractive twentysomething staffer when she grabbed her breasts and said, "And these are real."
The April 10, 2014, incident was a tipping point in the North Dakota Department of Health's microbiology lab in Bismarck, a workplace described as a "vortex of negativity" by the male employee who reported Young's actions as possible sexual harassment, according to documents obtained by Forum News Service through open records requests.
An internal investigation found that harassment did take place and also revealed a "troubling culture of allowing and acceptance of these types of comments," a department memo stated.
Now, after sharing her concerns with management and filing several grievances, Young has been fired -- she filed her appeal Monday -- and the co-worker who most strongly defended her was demoted May 13 and submitted his retirement notice the next day.
Both filed complaints last summer with the North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights claiming age discrimination and retaliation, and those complaints are pending investigation.
A chemist who resigned in February wrote in his exit interview that the lab environment had "deteriorated markedly," in large part because of the investigation initiated in April 2014. As a result, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention personnel in the building stopped associating with state employees, Perry Reed wrote.
"It became more and more commonplace for people to walk around with their shoulders slumped, heads hanging down, trudging down the hallways. People would avoid even speaking to each other in the lab, afraid that what they said might be reported to HR," he wrote.
"To make matters worse, this was allowed to drag on for months," he continued. "This greatly increased the stress level of all involved. There was open discussion of looking for outside employment, and increased dissatisfaction with the lab environment. From a legal perspective, it is the employers (sic) responsibility to provide a harassment-free work environment, which the DOH failed to provide."
State Health Officer Terry Dwelle, who has led the department since 2001, said he hopes Young's dismissal and other personnel actions he said he couldn't discuss will improve the lab environment.
Dwelle said he also has asked section chiefs to develop plans to address issues raised in a department-wide cultural survey administered in January, including low morale. Three-quarters of the 33 employees in the Division of Laboratory Services who completed the survey disagreed with the statement "morale at the department is good," with 48 percent strongly disagreeing.
"We're not taking a top-down approach to this," Dwelle said. "We're really throwing it to our sections."
Environmental Health Chief Dave Glatt, whose section includes lab services, acknowledged that "morale was bad," but said the age discrimination claims "just weren't founded" and the recent changes "really turned things around."
"We're just moving forward," he said. "Unfortunately, some things had to be done."
The lab's longest-serving microbiologist, Jan Trythall, turned in her retirement notice May 5 and will work her last day June 30 after 33 years with the department.
Trythall, who told human resources investigators that the supervisor she shared with Young would rather promote younger people into positions or put them forward for committees, declined to comment Friday. She stated in her retirement letter that she has family commitments requiring her attention and is "ready to move on to the next phase in my life."
'We are frustrated in here'
During the sexual harassment investigation, the other three employees who were in the room confirmed that Young grabbed her breasts and commented about them being real, according to a memo from Human Resources Director Dirk Wilke, who served on the interview team.
In an interview last week, Young said she was working on no sleep when she made the comment, having spent much of the night at a Bismarck hospital with her grandmother, who died early that morning.
She said she was reciting a story a co-worker had told about being frustrated over a younger staffer's promotion in November 2013 - the same promotion Young was denied - when she pointed to her breasts and said "and these are real."
Young, 45, who had worked in the lab since July 2004, acknowledged it's something she "shouldn't have said," but added that those types of inappropriate comments weren't uncommon in the lab, a place where samples tested for sexually transmitted diseases often led to talk about human anatomy. She said it wasn't meant to offend anyone.
"My purpose was we are frustrated in here," she said.
Young shared those frustrations with management when she was interviewed two weeks later as part of the investigation, claiming employees over 40 were treated unfairly - particularly in the selection process for internal committees that afforded younger employees the opportunity to shine, she said.
Human resources found enough evidence to warrant a verbal warning for harassment, but instead decided to note it on Young's performance evaluation, though it was never specifically mentioned in the evaluation.
The investigation also revealed "an allowance of this culture to go on and a lack of communication to management about concerns of staff that may be affecting the working environment," laying the blame for that lack of communication at the feet of Timothy Brosz, a 30-year employee who served as the lab's lead analyst for virology and immunology.
Brosz and Young both received negative marks on their performance reviews May 20, 2014, from their supervisor, lab services Assistant Director Eric Hieb.
On a scale of zero to 3, Brosz received a rating of 1 on his job duty as lead analyst and in the area of teamwork and cooperation, indicating that his performance was deficient and improvement was necessary.
Young received the same low rating on communication, teamwork/cooperation and attitude. She also received only a 3 percent raise, when the next lowest raise in the lab was 5 percent.
"I'm blown away," Young said last week, recalling her reaction. "I felt like if there was something serious, they would have said or done something."
In written responses to their reviews, Brosz and Young took issue with the negative remarks and this line from Hieb's email inviting them to the review: "From a place of personal concern for you, please reconsider any thoughts of defensiveness or other counter-productive approaches on your behalf or in defense of others."
Brosz wrote that he believed it was retaliation for his April 24, 2014, interview in the sexual harassment investigation, in which he stuck up for Young and pointed out issues in the lab.
"My defense of staff, description of the frequently sexually offensive conversations and actions that carry on throughout the entire laboratory, my attempt to bring up examples of incidences, critical comments of upper management lack of action regarding staff frustrations and stress that the assistant director and director were well aware existed, were seen as objectionable to our management and human resources," he wrote.
When reached by phone, Brosz referred questions to the Health Department's public information office.
Young filed an internal grievance June 9 alleging that unflattering statements she made during the sexual assault investigation about Hieb's leadership led to retaliation and a hostile work environment.
The next day, Brosz filed a grievance claiming his negative review marks "should be regarded as direct retaliation" for his comments during the same investigation.
Deputy State Health Officer Arvy Smith asked the state's Human Resource Management Services to investigate the grievances alleging age discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment and retaliation/reprisal in the microbiology lab.
Twenty people were interviewed during what turned into a more than six-month investigation. Because the Health Department had already done so, HRMS didn't investigate the sexual harassment claim, but noted in its report filed Jan. 2 that the "incident and subsequent investigation appear to be a catalyst for what followed."
When looking into the age discrimination claim, HRMS found that the overall average performance score among the 13 microbiology lab workers was 2.11 for those over 40 years old and 2.33 for those under 40.
"There is a difference in the performance scores and number of outstanding performance increases and bonuses between the groups of employees over 40 and under 40; however, we do not find it reasonable to conclude that age was a determining factor," the report stated.
HRMS ultimately found that Young and Brosz weren't subject to harassment or discrimination and that they were "largely not credible," noting that Young brought forward many of her allegations after she was accused of sexual harassment.
"We believe her allegations were initiated to deflect and defuse her behavior on April 10, 2014," the report states.
HRMS also found it "interesting" that Young and Brosz "have followed similar paths in the course of this investigation," including that they both filed internal grievances on June 10.
Young said the timing and content of the grievances wasn't coordinated.
"Was I aware that he would most likely be filing a grievance? Yes, I believe I was aware of that," she said.
HRMS recommended that the microbiology lab, which had been reorganized within the previous two years, receive training in harassment prevention, generations in the workplace, conflict management, community and trust/team building.
"Clearly the Microbiology Lab needs to work on trust and communication issues going forward; this will take time," the report stated.
The department held training on harassment and bullying for the lab services division staff on May 6, and training on the other topics is planned, Wilke said.
Investigation drags lab down
Tensions remained high in the lab after the HRMS report.
In late February, the employee who was promoted over Young filed a grievance claiming she'd been subjected to a hostile work environment through the behavior and actions of Young.
Young then filed grievances on March 19, April 6 and April 21, claiming retaliation and harassment in the workplace, including that she'd been held to a higher standard than other employees when a corrective action was issued for a virus test she did that failed to meet the required turnaround time. She claims other tests also failed but were marked as passed.
In all four cases, internal investigations found no basis for the grievances.
Young was fired effective on or about May 11. Glatt, the section chief, wrote in her termination letter that the decision was "based on your conduct over the past year which has shown insubordination, violation of multiple Department of Health policies including the abuse of the grievance policy for retaliation against coworkers, as well as poor performance and interactions with co-workers after being offered multiple opportunities and guidance for improvement."
Young filed her appeal of her firing on Monday. Dwelle has 10 working days to decide on it.
Young said she's waiting for the Labor Department to complete its investigation before deciding whether to pursue legal action against the Health Department.
Brosz was stripped of his lead analyst role and demoted from a microbiologist III to a microbiologist II on May 13, which Glatt wrote was based on "sustained poor performance as a lead analyst, a bias toward decisions involving Sandra Young and inaccurate reporting to management during multiple grievance investigations." His retirement is effective Feb. 2, 2016.
In his response to the pre-action letter informing him of his pending demotion, Brosz wrote that the past year of investigations and interviews caused him to seek medical treatment for his mental and physical health.
"All I have ever wanted was for the Health Department to seek the truth," he wrote.