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Latino Clark County workers file discrimination lawsuit, allege racism “on almost weekly basis”

Three Latino employees at Clark County have filed a federal discrimination lawsuit after allegedly experiencing racism and hostility at work that went ignored for years.

Elias Peña, Isaiah Hutson and Ray Alanis said they and other Latinos at the county’s road maintenance department also experienced a double-standard when they sought overtime hours.

The trio’s attorneys allege the county denied Peña an opportunity to quarantine from COVID-19 when he came in contact with an infected coworker.

When the three workers complained, according to court filings, the county’s human resources department and the mens’ union did little to assist.

The three workers filed a complaint Tuesday in the U.S. District Court of Western Washington. They are represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a national Latino civil rights organization based in Los Angeles.

Andres Holguin-Flores, a staff attorney, said the organization first heard about the complaints a year ago and investigated before deciding to file.

“Clark County is not following the law,” Holguin-Flores said. “Our lawsuit is addressing a series of incidents and that’s why this is so troubling. Our clients raised the issues to their supervisors and to the county, and the response was inadequate.”

County Manager Kathleen Otto said in a statement the county does not comment on pending litigation and said the county doesn’t condone racism.

“The county has a commitment to provide a work environment free from unlawful discrimination and harassment for its employees, the public it serves and those with whom the county conducts business,” Otto said.

The three plaintiffs declined to comment via their attorneys.

According to the eight-page complaint, Latino road crew employees faced racist remarks “on an almost weekly basis” and are treated separately from non-Latino workers for their work.

Supervisors and co-workers alike used slurs, the complaint said, and at least once referred to Latinos as “a cancer.” Latinos are openly insulted and mocked at county facilities, Holguin-Flores said in an interview. The complaint alleges Latino crews were referred to as the “brown crew” or “Manuel labor crew.”

“They’ll be at a job site and they’ll hear these comments, including at the central headquarters where multiple crews congregate,” he said. Or, Holguin-Flores said, there will be racist remarks written on documents in plain view.

“It would be a general piece of paper that would be put up, and then later on there would be something written on it, an anti-Latino sentiment, by someone else. It was in a public place where everyone could see it.”

According to the complaint, the workers said the county roads division didn’t give them the same opportunities for overtime pay and extra work that they did for non-Latino employees. However, it does not cite specific examples.

One allegation in the complaint said Peña became exposed to another county staffer who was diagnosed with COVID-19. Supervisors denied Peña a chance to quarantine unlike other, non-Latino workers.

“I think it really goes to the double-standard that’s taking place,” said Sandra Hernandez, a spokesperson for MALDEF.

Hernandez said the organization became involved a year ago at the urging of community members. She said the organization — founded in 1968 — considers itself a leading legal voice for the Latino community.

“We step up when we believe civil rights of Latinos are being abused or they’re being discriminated against,” Hernandez said.

The complaint said the incidents have occurred for more than three years.

Filing the lawsuit is not the first step the workers’ took either, the complaint said. They appealed to supervisors and to the county human resources department, but those internal checks “failed to investigate Plaintiff’s complaints, or otherwise dismiss Plaintiffs’ reports about discrimination,” the complaint said.

In the last year, the men have also filed union grievances and made complaints with the Washington State Human Rights Commission — the state agency that enforces unlawful discrimination — and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Ed Hamilton Rosales, president of the Southwest Washington chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said he views the allegations as evidence of systemic racism in Clark County.

“These guys have a right to their fair trial, the guys have a right to have been heard, these guys a right to go to work and not be discriminated against,” he said.

Holguin-Flores said MALDEF believes other Latino employees may come forward.

“Given the number of incidents and the duration over which our clients raised complaints over these incidents, and how long they’ve been going on, we have to assume there may be others who are facing similar harm,” he said.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting