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Former worker alleges discrimination at physical therapy center

Alisha Winstead said the conflicts began when she changed her hair.

Winstead, a former employee at Farese Physical Therapy Center, started wearing her hair in sisterlocks, a version of small dreadlocks.

At first, the hair "swells up like a cake, then it goes down," she said.

Winstead, a medical bill collector, said that's when her supervisor began making offensive comments. "She called me Buckwheat and Farina on a daily basis," Winstead said. The television characters invoke stereotypical images of African-Americans.

Winstead, 32, said she complained to John G. Farese, the center's owner, and was reassured it would not happen again. Three days later, Winstead said, she was fired.

Farese said neither he nor his employees are racist and said the company laid off 12 workers, including Winstead, because of a decrease in revenue. "Our guidelines are not to tolerate discrimination. . . . Even if it's in passing conversation, we won't tolerate it," Farese said.

Winstead filed racial discrimination charges last month with the city's Community Affairs Department, which investigates such local allegations, and with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Theresa Jones, the city department's director, confirmed that Winstead's complaint is being reviewed as well as another against the center, but declined to comment on either case because they are under investigation.

Winstead provided the St. Petersburg Times with a copy of her complaint. Specifics of the other case were unavailable.

Winstead, who is African-American and Cuban, went to work at the center in February, where she had previously worked before moving briefly to Atlanta. In July, Winstead said, she began wearing her hair naturally in dreadlocks. It takes several months, however, for the process to become permanent.

That's when her supervisor, Joanne Browning, first began making offensive remarks, Winstead said. She said Browning got pictures of Buckwheat and Farina off the Internet and showed them to her.

At first, Winstead said, she thought Browning was not intentionally being offensive. "I tried to show her how my hair would look in the end, I even went to a Web site and showed her."

But Winstead said Browning responded: "People with dreads are dirty and disgusting."

Browning, office manager at the center's St. Petersburg facility, said Winstead's claims are untrue. She said she had only one conversation with Winstead about her hair, and Winstead started it.

"Alisha's mother called her Sambo," said Browning, referring to "little black Sambo," a black children's storybook character. "There was a conversation in the office because she didn't know who Sambo was; that's the whole thing."

Winstead and her mother said that's untrue.

In another incident, Winstead said she wore a knitted cap to work and Browning pulled it off her head, accusing her of being a Rastafarian.

"There was constant name-calling and in order to keep your job, you have to laugh," Winstead said. "I would go home crying because you just get tired of being disrespected."

Browning said she never made the comment.

"I asked Edna (a co-worker) if she thought (Winstead) should be wearing a cap," Browning said. "She said "You don't want her to take the hat off the way her hair is,' so I didn't say anything."

Winstead complained to Farese in October. He said he immediately held meetings with the staff on racial discrimination and what's inappropriate in the work place.

Farese also said when Winstead was laid off, he gave her $1,000 in severance pay and a computer and supplies so she could start a business of her own.

Winstead said when she got the computer home, it didn't work.

Now, she is afraid some comments she made to Farese's lawyer will come back to haunt her.

Within days of starting at the center again in February, Winstead said Farese took her to his lawyer's office and asked her to confirm, on the record, that she had not experienced any racism from Farese.

Winstead said Farese showed her a copy of another complaint of racial discrimination.

Winstead told the lawyer that Farese had not been racist toward her.

Farese acknowledged he took Winstead to his lawyer's office to "attest to the climate and atmosphere of the company."

"They were sworn statements with regard to our behavior being in compliance," he said.

He declined to comment on the previous complaint. "It's an ongoing case, we won't discuss that," he said.

Jones said there were 233 employment discrimination charges filed last year with St. Petersburg's Community Affairs Department. Of those, nearly half were racial.

But discrimination can be "almost impossible to prove," Jones said, because the burden of proof is on the accuser, and often it's one person's word against another's.

Joe Feagin, who holds an endowed chair at Texas A&M University and teaches classes on the sociology of racial and ethnic relations, agreed. And "even if you get through it satisfactorily, the punishment is mild," he said. "They'll just tell them to stop doing it."

Jones said if discrimination is proved, often there will be an effort to have the two parties "work it out."

But Winstead said she just wants the center to change its ways.

"I want them to learn a lesson," she said. "You cannot allow your employees who are running the company to treat people like that."