EEOC: Altoona Water Authority violated rights

Commission says city authority broke discrimination laws in firing custodian

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has found “reasonable cause to believe” that the Altoona Water Authority violated employment discrimination laws when it fired custodian Richard Alberts in August in retaliation for Alberts’ complaints of harassment by a supervisor who had called him “a fat broke-down old man.”

In terminating Alberts, the authority violated a section of the Civil Rights Act that protects employees against “discrimination for making charges” against employers and a section of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act that — similarly — prohibits employers from discriminating against employees who have made age discrimination charges.

The commission did not find Alberts’ initial allegations of harassment credible, however — a finding that matches those of an independent investigation by a local lawyer hired by the authority.

Rather, the EEOC found fault with the authority’s use of the independent lawyer’s findings as the basis for firing Alberts.

“(Alberts) was discharged for making false and malicious claims of sexual harassment, harassment and retaliation,” the EEOC stated. That was improper, because such claims are “protected” under the relevant laws, according to the EEOC document, which was signed by Roosevelt Bryant, director of the commission’s regional office in Pittsburgh.

The EEOC will try to get both parties to settle the case, according to the commission document.

“The commission attempts to eliminate alleged unlawful practices by informal methods of conciliation,” Bryant wrote. “The commission now invites the (authority) to join with it in reaching a joint resolution.”

A settlement may involve a payment of money and “injunctive relief” that could include anti-discrimination training for managers and co-workers, said James Ryan, commission spokesman in Washington, speaking generally, and not about the Alberts case in particular.

If the parties fail to reach a settlement based on a “reasonable cause” finding (like the one in Alberts’ case), the commission could consider whether to sue on behalf of the complainant in federal district court, according to Ryan, again speaking in generalities.

“The evidence in the file may support a reasonable cause finding but may not support litigating,” Ryan wrote in an email.

Whether the commission sues also depends on the availability of staffing and resources, Ryan said.

If the commission does sue, it usually wins, Ryan said.

“We are careful about not taking cases that are not meritorious,” he said.

If the case doesn’t settle, and the commission doesn’t sue, “the complainant is provided a Right to Sue letter, giving him or her the right to pursue the case using private counsel,” Ryan wrote.

Authority General Man­ager Mark Perry, who fired Alberts, declined to comment.

“I’d love to, but I can’t,” Perry said.

Likewise, authority Chair­man Bill Neugebauer, board member Marla Marcinko and Director of Sewer Treatment Operations, Todd Musser — the supervisor whom Alberts accused of harassment — also declined to comment, citing the ongoing legal dispute.

Alberts has alleged that on his first day on the job in 2015, Musser said, “I wanted a worker, and they gave me a fat, broke-down old man.”

That was said in the spirit of good-natured ribbing, as Alberts in turn poked fun at Musser for Musser’s thinning hair, Musser told Attorney Aimee Willett, who conducted the independent investigation for the authority.

Musser also spied on Alberts through a joint between partitions in a restroom stall, smiled when he ordered Alberts to clean feces from a toilet seat and tried to intimidate him with a thumb-squishing gesture, Alberts told Willett.

Musser denied any intention to harass in connection with those accusations.

The restroom is so small that it would be easy to glance accidentally through a joint in the stall partition, Willett wrote.

As Alberts’ supervisor, Musser was within his rights to order Alberts to clean up the toilet seat, and if the order was accompanied with a smile, it was probably justified by the natural humor in the situation, Willett wrote.

There was no thumb-squishing gesture, Musser told Willett.

Ken Streilein, an authority employee and secretary of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union representing workers at the authority, is supportive of Alberts.

“I’m happy Rick is getting whatever resolution he is entitled to,” Streilein said. “I’m looking forward to him coming back to work.”

At least some parts of his case against Musser are valid, Streilein said, although he’s not sure all the allegations are sound.

Still, “Rick’s a pretty straight shooter,” Streilein said. “He says what he thinks — good or bad.”

Streilein hasn’t personally witnessed mistreatment of any employee by Musser, whom he doesn’t interact with much, he said.

But there is a grievance against Musser from a group of operators over shift assignments, there’s another employee who has had a problem with Musser, and he’s heard second-hand that there have been employees called down to Musser’s office simply for being out of the range of security cameras — employees who then had to explain that they were doing what Musser had told them to do, Streilein said.

The unfortunate dispute between Alberts and Musser probably could have been avoided had Alberts simply been assigned to work under a different supervisor early on, Streilein said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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