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Lawsuit accuses SLO County Child Support Services of workplace discrimination

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Four current or ex-employees of the San Luis Obispo County Department of Child Support Services are accusing the department's higher-ups of race and age discrimination in a lawsuit recently filed in SLO County Superior Court.

The plaintiffs—all women of color over age 40, each with a decade or more of experience in the department, including one high-level supervisor—described the office in the suit as "steeped in hostility, harassment, inequity, and antagonism."

HOSTILE OFFICE? Four longtime employees in the San Luis Obispo County Department of Child Support Services are alleging race and age discrimination in a recent lawsuit. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • HOSTILE OFFICE? Four longtime employees in the San Luis Obispo County Department of Child Support Services are alleging race and age discrimination in a recent lawsuit.

Alleging more than a dozen violations of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, the workers are seeking damages in a jury trial against the county.

"For years, invidious discrimination on the basis of age and race has corrupted the pay, disciplinary matters, work obligations, accommodations, promotions, hiring, firing, and overall professional development of the department's non-white employees over the age of 40," the March 7 lawsuit reads.

The 53-page civil complaint recounts how the four plaintiffs—Dorea Crowell, Jeanette Griffin-Grigsby, Martina Ruiz, and Tomasita Sarabia—were allegedly mistreated and discriminated against by Child Support Services leaders, and how the department showed favoritism toward younger, white employees, across several years.

It lists specific instances of alleged racism and ageism, including both verbal comments made by Director Natalie Walker, Assistant Director Christine Malone, and other supervisors, as well as actions that led to either fewer opportunities for the plaintiffs to advance in the department, or disciplinary, retaliatory actions against them.

In one instance highlighted in the suit, a department supervisor allegedly said to Ruiz during the 2016 presidential election race about then-President Barack Obama, "Can you believe we have a n—-er president?" That same supervisor also allegedly used a shared office printer to print out an article claiming that Obama was an Islamic extremist associated with the Taliban.

When plaintiff Crowell, a Black supervisor under Malone, reported the latter incident to her superiors, department leaders did not investigate or discipline the supervisor and allegedly said they didn't understand why it was offensive, according to the suit. The suit also claims that Crowell was asked in another incident if she "grew up in the hood."

The complaint alleges that Malone and Walker also made frequent comments encouraging the plaintiffs to retire and targeted them with unfair criticism or discipline. According to the lawsuit, that was a pattern with older employees: between 10 to 15 department workers over age 40 have been "discharged" from the department since 2018, while younger employees were "fast-tracked to management positions over senior employees of color."

Three of the four plaintiffs left the department in recent years due to the hostile work conditions, according to the suit.

Last year, SLO County rejected administrative claims for damages filed by the plaintiffs. In a statement about the lawsuit, County Counsel Rita Neal told New Times that the county "has been and will continue to vigorously defend this lawsuit." Δ

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