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Sept. 25, 2022

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3 Latino employees file racial discrimination lawsuit against Clark County

By , Columbian county government and small cities reporter

Three Latino Clark County Public Works employees have filed a federal racial discrimination lawsuit against the county.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court of Western Washington, accuses supervisors and other employees in the department’s road maintenance division of using racial slurs and other insults and denying benefits provided to non-Latino employees.

Clark County officials declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a Los Angeles-based civil rights organization, filed the suit on behalf of the three plaintiffs — Elias Peña, Isaiah Hutson and Ray Alanis.

Peña and Hutson started working in the roads division by 2016; Alanis joined in 2018. The complaint alleges a pattern of anti-Latino remarks and inconsistent treatment due to their race “on an almost weekly basis” for “at least three years.”

Other employees in the department would use racial slurs and have referred to Latinos as “a cancer,” the complaint states. Some of the insults were allegedly intertwined with threats of violence against Latinos and immigrants.

Supervisors and employees have also referred to the plaintiffs as the “landscaping crew,” “Manuel labor crew” and “brown crew,” and that they work for a “white slave master,” according to the complaint. The insults came vocally as well as in derogatory images and messages written in public areas, the complaint states.

Reports to supervisors and the county’s Human Resources department were allegedly either not investigated or dismissed.

Peña was denied the opportunity to quarantine after he was exposed to another county employee who was diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the complaint.

“Defendant and its supervisors and employees create and perpetrate a racially motivated pattern of discriminatory harassment against plaintiffs that involves interfering with their work and unjustifiably harming their reputations among roads division employees, which makes plaintiffs’ jobs harder,” the complaint reads.

The plaintiffs previously submitted complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and state Commission for Human Rights. They’d also filed a tort claim with the county Risk Management department.

When reached for comment, County Manager Kathleen Otto said that the county doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

“With that said, the county has a commitment to provide a work environment free from unlawful discrimination and harassment for its employees, the public it serves and those with whom the county conducts business,” Otto said in a statement.

‘It’s just maddening’

Ed Hamilton Rosales, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Southwest Washington, said he first started hearing from the employees in July.

That same month, LULAC had asked the county to declare systemic racism a public health crisis. The Clark County Council later approved the declaration in a 3-0 vote in a meeting that Chair Eileen Quiring O’Brien and Councilor Gary Medvigy did not attend.

That same month, the council started attending listening sessions on systemic racism following comments by Quiring O’Brien that denied that the issue existed in the county.

The events that month prompted the plaintiffs to reach out, Hamilton Rosales said. “One of the guys said, ‘I don’t know where (Quiring O’Brien) works.’ ”

Quiring O’Brien said in a text Wednesday that she had no comment, adding that she has “asked other councilors not to comment on this and we normally do not comment on pending litigation.”

The local LULAC chapter began gathering documentation before forwarding the case to MALDEF. Rosales said comments against Latinos also appeared on posters promoting equal opportunity, on job performance reviews and in emails.

“The same reaction that I hear whenever I come across one of these stories,” Hamilton Rosales said. “It’s not surprising, but it’s just maddening.”

Otto said in September that “county leadership recommitted to our staff both verbally and in writing our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.” She added that the county now mandates diversity, equity and inclusion training for all staff “at a minimum annually” and that the county was working on additional measures.

Hamilton Rosales said, though, that the case is an example of how county leadership’s attitude toward race is “throwing the taxpayers’ money away.”

“There are those that will read it and say, ‘Oh, they’re all making it up.’ They won’t learn anything and they won’t care, because that’s how we got here in the first place,” Hamilton Rosales said. “But I think those who want to pretend or presume the county is not like that will be moved by the litany of information that proves otherwise.”

Columbian county government and small cities reporter

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