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Trouble at the Workplace

Employees impacted by recurring acts of racism

Donovan M. Smith | 6/19/2013, 11:24 a.m.
Several Portland-area workers battle against employers after experiencing blatant racial insensitivity on the job
As an African-American, Ivery Mays Jr. is certainly `underrepresented’ in his profession as an Apprentice Pipefitter, but he never thought he would encounter racism on the job. Photo by Donovan M. Smith

It is still happening; people are going to work only to be met with unacceptable acts of racism and a paystub as the only consolation for an apology. In a city where protests against injustice are plentiful, and the unofficial motto is progressive politics, it is troubling to hear that several of Portland’s own have been the victims of such bigotry recently.

Lifetime Portlander Ivery Mays Jr. says, as an African-American, he is certainly “underrepresented” in his profession as an Apprentice Pipefitter, however, he never thought he would encounter racism on job, especially not so blatant.

But to his surprise racism is what the 39-year-old says he found in the trade he pursued in an effort to better support his family.

His sense of normalcy was destroyed while finishing up work at a Camas, Wash. jobsite in early December. As per usual, his supervisor asked him and three other apprentices to begin cleaning out toolboxes before everyone left for the day.

Mays was given four toolboxes to clean, but the very first one would provide a disturbing surprise; a hangman’s noose was revealed when he opened it, taped to the inside door. He immediately went to the bathroom to attempt to regroup and then snapped a picture of it with his camera phone. “Nooses aren’t part of our materials.” says Mays.

Whenever there is an incident or concern there’s a chain of command any apprentice must follow to report it. The second-year trainee did so, but without resolution. Now he has acquired an attorney and has filed a complaint with the state of Washington and is pursing legal action against his employer Harder Mechanical for racial discrimination.

Mays’ attorney, Sean Bannon says “It’s shocking that it’s happening in this day and age, and a big part of why we’re taking legal action is to make sure that there’s accountability for companies tolerating this conduct.”

Perhaps more troubling is that he is not alone.

Community leader and activist Rev. Leroy Haynes, the pastor of Allen Temple Church and a representative for the Albina Ministerial Alliance, says he is advocating for two female cellular-communications employees in Portland who say they have been the victims of racism on the job. He echoes Bannon’s sentiment of “shock” adding that it is perhaps even more troubling in post-Obama United States.

“Although in situations like this it may not always be about race, we must stand with our community when we think there has been an injustice.” says Haynes.

The Urban League of Portland has also been actively supporting the two employees as well.

Urban League President Michael Alexander says in a situation like this it is best not to take a position of “right or wrong” but make sure all parties involved are best served. “When people come to us, we’re going to reach out to the organization and make sure they revisit their policies and are really doing their best to uphold them.”

Mays currently maintains a full-time job schedule with Harder; the two communications employees have not been so lucky. Though both remain employees on the company’s personnel files they have been without work or pay for several months now.

In all three incidents, the victims were the only African-Americans at their place of employment. As they all strive for a resolve to their individual accusations, all they can do is continue to fight and wait.

Many times issues of workplace discrimination can be handled internally, however in extreme cases it is often best to contact the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.