Devastated by the police killing of George Floyd last spring, Patonia Rhule wanted to start a dialogue at her job about systemic racism. It seemed appropriate: She is an investigator at the federal watchdog agency responsible for protecting American workers from discrimination.
Rhule emailed all her colleagues at the Dallas office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in early June, shortly after she and other Black employees were passed over for promotions. She considered it a benign message of support: “#BlackLivesMatter.”
It was the week the same rallying cry was painted on the street outside the White House and began echoing through every major American city.
Rhule assumed her fellow investigators at the agency, if anybody, would understand. Instead, she was met with hostility.
One co-worker responded, copying several supervisors, that he found the sentiment highly offensive. “All lives matter in my eyes,” he wrote back.
After several increasingly heated email exchanges between the two and others, Rhule’s bosses reprimanded her, and then she was suspended for being unnecessarily combative, failing to follow directions and misusing agency email in a number of exchanges – including the Black Lives Matter conversation – documents obtained by USA TODAY show.
“Messages of this kind, particularly in the height of civil unrest across the country, should be limited to personal conversations,” Belinda McCallister, Rhule’s director, who is also Black, wrote in an email, copying more than 100 other employees.
“You are reminded again, that you should not send any message through official EEOC email or other EEOC correspondence regarding Black Lives Matter.”
Born out of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the EEOC is charged with protecting millions of employees across the country from workplace discrimination, harassment and retaliation. For most people, it is the only federal agency that can investigate claims of civil rights violations in the workplace, everything from sexual harassment in C-suites to nooses in janitors’ lockers.
In agency-wide memos and meetings last year – both immediately after Rhule’s #BlackLivesMatter email and again earlier this year – EEOC leaders publicly condemned systemic racism and stressed the agency’s responsibility to confront it in the workplace.
But employees inside the EEOC’s Dallas district, which serves a large area across most of Texas and southern New Mexico, told USA TODAY they have faced the exact workplace discrimination they signed up to combat.
More than a dozen current and former EEOC employees there told USA TODAY they have been unfairly passed over for promotions, disciplined, scrutinized, denied training opportunities, given poor evaluations or forced to resign – all under the pretext of lackluster performance.
In reality, the employees said they were targeted for their race, disabilities or sexual orientation. Internal documents from Rhule’s case and others show how agency leaders have at times come down on employees after they speak out. Employees say their mistreatment is often compounded with retaliation for reporting discrimination.
“Working for the EEOC shouldn’t break people’s souls, you know?” said Rhule, who has appealed her suspension and is in the midst of several labor grievances with the agency. “It shouldn’t be a traumatic experience. People should feel uplifted and empowered. It’s just so sad.”
Shelia Squire, a Black investigator at the agency for more than 30 years until she retired in 2017, said she filed complaints after being denied numerous promotions for which she believed she was qualified. She said she never received any awards or recognition, despite consistently being one of the district’s top performers.
“It’s embarrassing for a Black female to file complaints against a civil rights establishment,“ she said, noting she still believes the EEOC is crucial for people of color, especially in Texas, but that its management has been unable to protect its own workers.
“This is Dr. (Martin Luther) King’s agency,” Squire said.
Several district directors responded to her complaints by refusing to sign off on her investigations, Squire claims, effectively preventing her from completing work and sabotaging her yearly evaluations. They also forced her to come into the office when she was supposed to be at home for medical accommodations, she said.
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Other Black employees described being disciplined for things as trivial as parking in the wrong places or addressing corporate attorneys by their first name. Some investigators said they told leaders at the agency’s headquarters about their own allegations of discrimination, but those complaints never went anywhere.
Martin Ebel, the EEOC’s director of field programs, said in a statement to USA TODAY that the agency has no policy that specifically addresses an employee’s stance on Black Lives Matter.
In a follow-up interview, Ebel said he did not believe any employees have been penalized for openly supporting the movement. However, he said there are rules against sending emails to large groups of colleagues without a supervisor’s approval.
When pressed on the facts of Rhule’s case – and other specific allegations uncovered by USA TODAY – he declined to elaborate, citing privacy laws.
“We consider ourselves to be a model employer,” said Ebel, who started in the role in October 2020, adding that he hopes claims of EEOC supervisors retaliating against employees are not true and that he’ll crack down on those caught doing it. “It will not be acceptable.”
Employees who are gay or have disabilities shared similar experiences.
Earlier this month, Richard Reinhart, then a probationary EEOC employee in Dallas who is openly gay, filed a discrimination complaint with headquarters. Among other grievances, he alleged that he was forced to come into the office during the COVID-19 pandemic, over his objections and despite the agency’s work-from-home policy. Less than two weeks later, he was fired on a Zoom call for what the agency says was a string of unprofessional conduct.
“I wholeheartedly believed in the mission of the EEOC when I started,” he told USA TODAY, noting that he believes he was fired for filing the complaint. “I don’t see how it’s possible for us to fight discrimination for the public when it’s going on within our own walls.”
In 2017, investigator Andrew Leonard asked for time off to receive electroshock therapy to treat major depression – a protected disability under federal law. A manager approved it, records show. But when he returned to work after weeks of recovery, the agency moved to fire him before deciding to instead suspend him without pay for going AWOL.
In an emailed statement, recently appointed EEOC Chairwoman Charlotte Burrows said she is committed to ensuring that the agency is free from discrimination.
“We take any allegation of workplace misconduct seriously and will investigate each one thoroughly and take disciplinary actions when appropriate,” said Burrows, who is Black.
Paul Igasaki, a former EEOC chairman, told USA TODAY that the accusations by employees in Texas raise questions about the entire agency’s credibility and may harm its public perception.
"It’s obviously extremely hypocritical,” he said, “for an agency that is charged with fighting employment discrimination in the workplace to have it themselves.”
Internal EEOC data obtained by USA TODAY suggests the Dallas district’s workplace issues have spilled into how it handles investigations of employers on the outside as well. From 2015 to 2019, Black workers in the area – which includes San Antonio, El Paso and parts of New Mexico – have formally filed more than 7,100 racial discrimination claims with the agency. The district investigated and substantiated the claims in 13 of those cases, or about one in 550.
For context, the agency substantiated about 1,200 of all 83,500 cases – not just Black discrimination – filed nationwide in 2019. That’s about one in 70.
Ebel, the EEOC official, said USA TODAY’s analysis of substantiated claims doesn’t take into account the large number of complaints the agency receives but can’t pursue because of issues such as jurisdictional or time limits. He said the agency also helps workers in several other ways, including mediating settlements in what the agency calls “merit resolutions.”
For the past six years, the EEOC has recovered about $78 million a year for victims of racial discrimination in lawsuits and mediation, according to agency statistics. In the Dallas office, that meant about $3 million a year for Black workers who filed race-based charges.
Yet investigators in Texas said they have repeatedly faced internal pushback when trying to pursue cases on behalf of Black workers. Squire said she was explicitly told to stop investigating Black discrimination claims to instead focus on other types of cases, such as sexual harassment. Others said they were implicitly discouraged from pursuing those claims because the cases would so rarely go anywhere or because a Black complainant had a criminal history.
“It was frustrating that they would not fight for these people,” Naseer Duncan, a former investigator who left in late 2018, told USA TODAY. “The lower the economic status of the individual, the less they put into fighting for them.”
“They don’t seem to care about the people who are most vulnerable,” Duncan said.
In response, Ebel told USA TODAY, “I don’t believe that that’s happening.”
Roots in the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King
EEOC investigators, who fielded more than 67,000 formal charges nationwide last year, are supposed to collect evidence and then determine if labor laws were broken. The agency has the power to sue companies on behalf of workers, even issue consent decrees to force employers to change internal policies.
Worker rights activists have lamented the tenure of President Donald Trump’s appointee Janet Dhillon as the commission’s chair. She had the support of Republican leaders and the nation’s largest business lobbies. Critics point to a more business-friendly tenor from the commission that in fiscal year 2020, which was partially affected by the pandemic, filed 93 discrimination suits, down from 144, 199 and 184 in the previous three years.
Dhillon implemented a pilot program to push more cases into conciliation and mediation instead of to lawsuits last year. The policy was quickly rescinded by Burrows, President Joe Biden’s new commission leader, ahead of its scheduled termination. In December, Dhillon also had floated a controversial proposal to strip lawsuit authority from the general counsel in favor of the commission’s sign-off. That issue has been pushed by industry groups for decades as a way to reduce lawsuits.
Now the agency has just under 2,000 employees and a budget of $390 million – the smallest it has been in 30 years. The commission’s board, which has final say on agency policies and litigation against companies, currently consists of three Republicans and two Democratic members, who were presidentially appointed.
The EEOC has long been especially important for low-wage workers, many of them people of color, who often can’t afford to hire labor attorneys when they’ve been wronged at work. In addition, workers need to file with the EEOC before suing an employer on federal discrimination grounds.
When the agency was established in the 1960s, the plight of Black workers was top of mind. The automation of factories had begun displacing lower-ranked positions in manufacturing, which was disproportionately hurting Black workers, said William P. Jones, professor of history at the University of Minnesota.
Jones said civil rights leaders “were concerned that if African Americans were shut out of jobs because of the color of their skin, they were at a distinct disadvantage in a changing economy and that would create more deepened poverty and distress in Black communities.”
Ebel told USA TODAY that racial discrimination remains one of the agency’s most important pillars.
“We have a longstanding commitment to this particular issue,” he said. “Our staff is here for our mission. They love that this is what we’re doing.”
The EEOC normally stays out of the spotlight. Recently, however, with the high-profile deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, it has waded into the national discourse around police killings.
“The EEOC’s mission to prevent, address, and remedy employment discrimination represents America’s highest ideals of equality,” Dhillon wrote in a June 9 resolution, days after Rhule sent her #BlackLivesMatter email to the Dallas district office.
Dhillon said the EEOC “condemns the violence that has claimed the lives of so many Black persons in America” and “commits to redouble our efforts to address institutionalized racism, advance justice, and foster equality of opportunity in the workplace.”
‘A pattern and practice of systemic discriminatory practices’
Behind the scenes, agency officials have been navigating how to handle cases in which U.S. workers express support for the Black Lives Matter movement and their company punishes them.
Employees for major airlines and chains have sued their employers, claiming they were punished for wearing Black Lives Matter apparel at work or posting about the movement on social media.
Earlier this year, Rhule asked EEOC Vice Chair Jocelyn Samuels during a district-wide town hall meeting if the agency would start tracking these sorts of claims – similar to the way it handled anti-Muslim discrimination after 9/11 – and if they fell within the agency’s jurisdiction.
“If you become aware of employees being penalized for expressing support for Black Lives Matter, I would ask that you make me aware of that,” Samuels responded, based on a recording of the meeting obtained by USA TODAY. “I do think that would be a deeply unfortunate development and one that I’d be interested in exploring whether we have tools to address.”
The irony is not lost on Rhule, who was herself later chastised and then suspended after showing support for the movement. Her bosses cited several abrasive remarks in the suspension, including her complaints of overrepresentation of Spanish speakers on an internal committee.
During her two-week, unpaid suspension this month, Rhule started a GoFundMe page to raise money for a legal defense, identifying herself as an investigator for the EEOC and criticizing the agency for not doing more for Black Lives Matter cases.
“I was told that me speaking out is discourteous,” she wrote. “I know this was done out of retaliation and to deter me.”
The agency opened another disciplinary investigation into Rhule’s GoFundMe page earlier this month, and Rhule closed down donations and removed mentions of the EEOC shortly after. But her story caught the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Gary Bledsoe, the NAACP chair in Texas, said the EEOC’s handling of Rhule’s case betrays the agency’s mission.
“What’s occurring here is pretty shocking,” Bledsoe told USA TODAY. “You can’t put the fox in charge of the henhouse.”
Another Black investigator, Dawn West-Lewis, left the EEOC in 2015. She told USA TODAY that her managers in Texas considered outspoken Black women aggressive but white women assertive. They punished her for things as trivial as parking in the wrong part of the lot while letting others park wherever they wanted. She said she also was disciplined for working on cases after hours, on her own time.
“You’re talking about an agency charged with investigating discrimination in the workplace while committing more violations than you can ever imagine,” West-Lewis said. “There has been a pattern and practice of systemic discriminatory practices in that office for decades.”
Employees disillusioned with the agency
Richard Reinhart started working for the EEOC in Dallas last summer as a clerk. He said he immediately noticed internal tumult after he saw the responses to Rhule’s emails, which were copied to the whole staff.
“Our responsibility here is to combat discrimination,” said Reinhart, an Army veteran who served in Iraq. “How can we be told we can’t back Black Lives Matter?”
Shortly after, Reinhart began butting heads with his supervisor about instructions he found confusing and cases he felt weren’t properly investigated, according to internal records obtained by USA TODAY. He said the issues came to a head when management forced him to work in the office during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reinhart complained that he would likely contract and spread the virus.
When Reinhart reached out to coworkers for help with work, he said they turned him away.
“Essentially, I have been given a gag order,” Reinhart wrote to the top lawyers at the agency’s headquarters in March. “My poor treatment is the tip of the iceberg in the Dallas District Office.”
He filed a formal complaint with the agency this month, alleging he felt singled out and mistreated. Less than two weeks later, Reinhart was fired via Zoom meeting.
In his termination letter, McCallister, the district director, said supervisors had grown concerned about Reinhart’s “performance and conduct-related matters.” She said he had been repeatedly disrespectful to his supervisor on a phone call – he had once hung up on her – and failed to follow instructions, including failing to use the correct documents when communicating with companies.
“I believe that you are unsuited for Federal service,” McCallister wrote in the letter.
Reinhart was stunned. “I was expecting the EEOC to hold high standards for the public,” he said. “What I’ve seen is devastating.”
EEOC officials declined to comment on the specifics of Reinhart’s case, citing privacy laws. But Ebel, the director of field programs, said in a statement, “No individuals from the Dallas district have been terminated after filing a complaint of discrimination.”
For years, EEOC employees like Reinhart and Rhule have complained about unfair treatment within the Dallas district office.
Nazer said 20 internal complaints of discrimination have been formally filed by employees in the district since 2011. Nationwide, 39 EEOC employees filed internal complaints each year on average between 2015 and 2019, according to agency statistics. About a third of them were race-related.
Management told one investigator, Hannah Nutt, who had recently given birth, that she couldn’t keep breastmilk in the office refrigerator, Nutt told USA TODAY. She left the agency in late 2017.
That same year, Leonard, an investigator currently employed in Dallas, asked for time off to seek treatment for his major depressive disorder and provided medical documents to his supervisors. His condition was so severe he had scheduled electroshock therapy.
“I would like to work up until treatments begin and then complete my treatments and return back to work,” he wrote to a disability program manager. “I know this has been difficult for everyone involved, but this is the treatment of last resort and it’s necessary. I’ve tried everything else I can try.”
The manager approved the leave, email and text exchanges show.
When he woke up after the first round of treatment, Leonard said, he didn't know where he was or what had happened. At home, he didn’t recognize his dogs. He didn’t remember having a job. It took weeks to recover before he could work again.
That’s when Leonard learned the EEOC wanted to fire him for going AWOL. His bosses decided to instead suspend him for three months without pay.
Leonard appealed the discipline. An administrative judge later found that his supervisors approved his medical leave, then unfairly disciplined him, according to internal documents.
In an initial decision, the judge ordered the EEOC to give Leonard backpay and wrote that he proved the agency had discriminated against him for his disability and that the “agency’s action was the result of unlawful retaliation.”
Leonard said the case is still pending because the EEOC filed for a board to review the judge’s decision. Four years later, he still feels betrayed by the episode.
“Anyone who requires accommodations has been run off,” Leonard told USA TODAY. “We would never allow another company to do what the EEOC has done to me.”
Claims in Texas mirror others
The internal tumult in Texas may reflect more widespread issues within the agency.
In a federal lawsuit filed in March, Malcolm Medley, a Black senior executive director at EEOC’s Washington headquarters, said he was demoted after receiving a poor work evaluation based on the opinion of a supervisor who racially discriminated against him.
The EEOC denied those allegations and said Medley’s demotion was “the result of his unacceptable performance of his duties,” according to court records. The case remains open.
The lawsuit alleges that Medley’s boss, Nick Inzeo, prevented him from executing his job’s main duties, including excluding him from meetings, emails and other work discussions.
Inzeo allegedly yelled at Medley during a telephone meeting in March 2020 for reaching out to the information technology department to discuss work-from-home and training solutions in the face of the worsening pandemic.
Disturbed by Inzeo’s behavior, an EEOC employee on the call, Kessela Reis, sent an email to 16 people at the meeting to address what she had heard.
“As a black woman to have to witness a white man unrestrained and indignant yell at a black man for attempting to do his job by simply participating in a meeting marked as ‘brainstorming’ is intolerable, disrespectful, and outrageous,” Reis, who reported to Medley, wrote in the email.
Another employee agreed that Inzeo “irresponsibly thrashed” Medley and “made him look foolish in front of the staff,” according to court records.
Several investigators in Texas also said that Inzeo, who was in charge of overseeing their internal complaints from headquarters, repeatedly turned his back on them and sided with the local supervisors. Inzeo retired from the agency in October after a 45-year career. Ebel, the director of programs, took his place.
In an interview with USA TODAY, Inzeo said the Department of Justice is handling the suit on behalf of the agency. He denied any discriminatory or untoward conduct, adding that he championed Medley through the hiring ranks to the D.C. office.
“Most people who were on the call didn’t believe there was any yelling involved,” Inzeo said. “It was a situation where people were on a conference call and it’s difficult to interject.”
When asked about Black workers in general at EEOC, Inzeo said he was unaware of any pattern of discrimination.
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“EEOC hires a diverse workforce, I’m certainly not aware of any patterns of discrimination,” he said. “Had I been I would have done something about it.”
Anita Mazumdar Chambers, Medley’s attorney, said she doesn’t believe her client’s experience is an isolated problem.
“We have talked to other people who also confirmed that it is more widespread,” she said. “Even with the supervisor Nick Inzeo, that he has treated African Americans more poorly and that there is this really negative culture at the agency, which is kind of ironic given the agency’s purpose.”
Brett Murphy, Javonte Anderson and Nick Penzenstadler are reporters on the USA TODAY investigations team. Contact Brett at firstname.lastname@example.org, @brettMmurphy, by Signal at 508-523-5195; Javonte at email@example.com, @JavonteA, by Signal at 312-919-0360; and Nick at firstname.lastname@example.org, @npenzenstadler, by Signal at 720-507-5273.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Workers claim discrimination at agency built to protect civil rights