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Duke retains housekeeping supervisor accused of harassment

Some residential housekeepers are upset after an investigation completed Spring 2012 found insufficient evidence to validate harassment and discrimination accusations against Linda Schlabach, who formerly served as Edens Quadrangle’s senior housekeeping supervisor.

The decision has left some housekeepers and other concerned parties frustrated with how the University handles such complaints, citing lack of transparency. Schlabach was re-employed by Duke early Fall, following a period of suspension while the investigation was taking place, said Edwin Gooch, a lawyer for the union Local 77, which includes employees in housekeeping and facilities management. She currently works in a dormitory on East Campus, he added, noting that he is not aware of any complaints filed against Schlabach since she resumed employment. The original grievance, filed Dec. 7, 2011 and signed by seven housekeepers who had been working under Schlabach in Edens, contended that Schlabach harassed employees based on racial and national origin. According to a copy of the original document obtained by The Chronicle, she was accused of routinely utilizing “humiliation and aggression, used to promote a climate of fear.”

Specifically, the letter alleged that Schlabach had taken money from the housekeepers, violated their personal property and threatened termination and deportation, among other actions. The original letter demanded that Schlabach should be fired.

“We can’t get a definite answer from management [why], but they brought her back with a clean slate,” Gooch said. “We don’t know what happened with the investigation.”

Andrea*, a former housekeeper, was one of the original seven signatories. This Spring, she received a letter dated May 3, 2012 explaining Duke’s reasons for not finding Schlabach guilty of the alleged harassment, written and signed by Cynthia Clinton, director of harassment prevention at the Office of Institutional Equity. A copy of the letter was obtained by The Chronicle.

“My follow-up to this matter did not reveal sufficient evidence of prohibited discrimination,” the letter states. “Ms. Schlabach presented legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for any employment actions taken, which do not appear disingenuous or unworthy of belief. As such, I do not find a violation of Duke’s non-discrimination policy.”

The Chronicle made repeated attempts to contact Schlabach, but she could not be reached for comment.

‘Nobody asked me’

After Housing, Dining and Residence Life received the complaint in December 2011, they referred it to a “third-party” office on Duke’s campus for review that is equipped to investigate harassment issues, said Rick Johnson, assistant vice president of student affairs for HDRL. Due to employee privacy rights, Johnson declined to state which office was charged with the task.

Clinton would not confirm that her office handled the investigation, citing her obligation to protect the privacy of University employees and because of an OIE policy that bars her from speaking about specific cases.

But her May 3 letter states that she conducted interviews to investigate concerns and complaints cited in the Dec. 7 grievance and reviewed relevant documents. Additionally, her letter terms the decision “my investigation and determination.” Johnson said the investigation and review process was “thorough and exhaustive,” spanning about three months.

“The third-party office interviewed over 20 people, some of them multiple times,” he said. “The intent was to corroborate stuff that they heard through the other interviews.”

Andrea, however, said she was never contacted to testify about the case, though she was one of the seven housekeepers who signed the Dec. 7 complaint. Andrea lost her job at the University Sept. 15, 2011 after six years of employment, when human resources officials found that she did not have the proper authorization to work in the United States.

Although she was not employed by Duke when the complaint was filed or during the investigation, she said she still should have been contacted to give testimony as one of the housekeepers who claimed mistreatment by Schlabach.

“I was furious because it wasn’t right,” Andrea said. “Nobody asked me questions about what happened.”

But in her letter to Andrea, Clinton refers to interviewing her as part of the investigation process. Clinton declined to comment to The Chronicle on whether or not those interviews with Andrea took place.

Gooch said he believes that as the union protecting housekeepers, Local 77 should have been allowed to be more involved in the investigation. Although he and other union representatives were permitted to sit in on parts of the hearings, they were barred from “actively taking part” in the investigation, he said.

No University officials conferred with union representatives before deeming the case to have unsubstantial evidence, Gooch added.

“We were left out of the conversation,” he said. “No one knew what was happening until we saw [Schlabach] coming back to work.”

In her May 3 letter, Clinton stated that Schlabach denied several of the housekeepers’ claims during the investigation process. Schlabach testified that she did not act in an abusive, harassing, threatening or discriminatory manner, nor did she use undesirable work assignments to punish workers or force anyone to contribute money for workplace events. Additionally, the letter states that Schlabach claimed to have followed departmental policies and procedures.

According to the letter, Schlabach acknowledged some of the allegations, including shaking and hitting a vacuum cleaner—she said it had been clogged and she was trying to make it work again. Those complaints did not qualify as a violation of the Duke harassment policy, Clinton noted in the letter.

In addition to Schlabach’s own denial of several actions, the letter notes that some of the accusations made by housekeepers, including certain behavior and comments attributed to Schlabach, could not be corroborated in the interview process.

A separate entity

Schlabach’s case not only affects many individuals personally, but also raises broader questions about how Duke handles harassment claims, said Kinnari Bhojani, Trinity ’12 and one of the founders of Duke Student Action with Workers, a group established to support University employees.

OIE implements Duke harassment policies, and also follows up on concerns about mistreatment, Clinton said. The University has a formal definition for harassment—“verbal or physical conduct… that, because of its severity and/or persistence, interferes significantly with an individual’s work,” according to the OIE website. But when it comes to investigating claims of harassment, there is no formula, Clinton said.

“The factual context is very important,” she said. “We try to be as equitable and fair and objective. In any situation we handle, we always reflect on what we may have learned and how that can influence how we handle future cases.”

At the end of her May 3 letter, Clinton notes that a “detailed confidential report” of the investigation was submitted to responsible University officials, and included recommendations “to aid in sustaining an inclusive and respectful work environment.”

She declined to disclose who those University officials were or the nature of the alluded to recommendations.

But Bhojani questioned whether OIE should have handled this particular case at all. It is an office within the University, which she believes may have resulted in an investigation conducted with bias.

Johnson contended that the office that conducted the investigation was able to operate as a third party because it is external to HDRL.

“[It] is very separate, certainly separate from us, separate from Student Affairs,” he said. “They can be totally objective because they’re evaluating the department and a situation that they’re independent of.”

*Name has been changed for the source’s protection.

The article has been modified to indicate that some residential housekeepers are upset.


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