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Hernando utility workers disciplined in harassment case

BROOKSVILLE — Three Hernando County Utilities Department workers have been reprimanded and disciplined after an investigation confirmed they racially harassed co-workers.

Crew leader Mike Smith, facing a 10-day suspension without pay and a demotion, resigned instead on Wednesday.

Co-worker Will Wilson was suspended for three days without pay. He agreed to a "last chance agreement'' on his behavior and will participate in counseling and racial sensitivity training.

Wilson got into a heated exchange with co-worker Jason Booker in March and at some point told Booker, who is of mixed race, to "go back to Africa,'' according to documents released by the county on Wednesday.

"This statement has obvious racial overtones that have no place in the workplace,'' utilities director Joseph Stapf wrote in Wilson's reprimand.

A third employee, Darrell Rose, also was reprimanded for referring to former utilities worker Floyd Moore as his "black shar-pei'' when he wrinkled his scalp.

"While you may have intended the use of this phrase as a term of endearment, it is clearly inappropriate and was unwelcome,'' Stapf wrote.

Rose also will take counseling and racial sensitivity training. He was warned that another incident of misconduct could get him fired.

The disciplines follow the release of an 18-page report from the law firm of Glenn, Rasmussen, Fogarty & Hooker, P.A., of Tampa late Tuesday. The county hired the firm to perform an independent review of the racial harassment allegations.

The firm reviewed the transcripts of 11 utility worker interviews and discussions with current and former county workers. The report summarizes the incidents and reached several conclusions:

• Booker was subjected to "inappropriate, racially derogatory horseplay'' in December when co-workers hung a noose-like rope in a tree and made inappropriate comments.

• It could not be proved that Moore ever had a noose placed around his neck. Moore had described an incident in 2005 in which he was wrestled to the ground and lassoed but there were no racial overtones.

• Witnesses interviewed could not recall ever having any sensitivity training about discrimination or harassment.

• Utilities employees do not feel they can complain about inappropriate comments or conduct through the existing procedures.

The report recommends discipline for employees who had made the inappropriate comments. It specifically cites Smith's failure as team leader "to provide more positive role modeling for the junior employees working under him.''

The report also recommends the county find a way to "cleanse Booker's work environment of racial hostility'' and move Booker to a different crew. The new crew should be told that retaliation of any kind violates county policy.

The county should also consider making Moore, the former employee, an offer of re-employment in a different crew. It is not known whether the county is considering that move. In an unrelated matter, Moore was charged with cocaine possession on Monday. It was unclear whether this would impact his status as a rehire.

The report also examines how the Human Resources Department could have more effectively intervened in the case. It notes that the handling was consistent with existing policies, but recommends widespread changes in policies concerning harassment and complaint procedures.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando utility workers disciplined in harassment case 04/23/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 24, 2008 1:08pm]
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