Suit claims ha­rass­ment at de­fense agency

Wo­man says she was iso­lated af­ter re­quest­ing child-care work­around

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY RACHEL WEINER

A fe­male de­fense agency em­ployee said in court last week that she was iso­lated and ha­rassed at the of­fice af­ter ask­ing to work from home one day a week be­cause she could not ar­range child care.

Her bosses at the De­fense Se­cu­rity Service say she is sim­ply un­happy she was not given spe­cial ac­com­mo­da­tion.

A jury in fed­eral court in Alexan­dria is expected to de­cide this week which side they be­lieve. Pa­tri­cia Burke’s suit against the De­fense Depart­ment is the rare em­ploy­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion case against the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to go to trial.

“Prior to this, I got along with ev­ery­body,” Burke tes­ti­fied last week. Af­ter her com­plaint, she said, “peo­ple weren’t speak­ing to me.”

An in­ter­nal re­view from the agency’s Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tu­nity of­fice already found that Burke was sub­jected to a hos­tile work en­vi­ron­ment, although the orig­i­nal de­ci­sion to deny her a more flex­i­ble sched­ule was not dis­crim­i­na­tory, it found.

Dis­sat­is­fied with the re­sponse of the agency, Burke sued in fed­eral court for com­pen­sa­tion for emo­tional dis­tress.

“The agency should have pro­tected her right to seek the as­sis­tance of the EEO of­fice, and the rights of the other women who have come for­ward re­gard­ing a wide­spread pat­tern of gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion, ha­rass­ment, and re­tal­i­a­tion in the Counter-In­tel­li­gence Direc­torate at DSS,” her at­tor­ney, Ja­cob Small, said in a state­ment.

The De­fense Se­cu­rity Service, part of the De­fense Depart­ment, over­sees the pro­tec­tion of clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion by gov­ern­ment con­trac­tors. Burke, a field sup­port an­a­lyst in the coun­terin­tel­li­gence di­vi­sion, had been off on Wed­nes­days be­fore the birth of her first child in 2013. When she

re­turned, her su­per­vi­sor al­lowed her to work from home on Wed­nes­days to take care of her son.

Then she got a new su­per­vi­sor. She was told she could not work from home as a sub­sti­tute for child care, although she be­lieved male em­ploy­ees had been al­lowed to do so in the past. She was also barred from go­ing back to a sched­ule where she did not work Wed­nes­day, be­cause of se­ques­tra­tion-re­lated fur­loughs.

“I had a new­born child at home, and I wasn’t sure what I was go­ing to do,” she tes­ti­fied. “I didn’t feel like the child meant anything to them.”

Burke filed a com­plaint with the agency’s EEO of­fice later that year. Af­ter that, she and other em­ploy­ees tes­ti­fied, she was os­tra­cized.

It was “a se­vere and a per­va­sive hos­tile work en­vi­ron­ment” that left her so anx­ious and de­pressed that her mar­riage may not re­cover, Small told ju­rors as the trial be­gan.

Nel­son Bishop, Burke’s for­mer su­per­vi­sor, tes­ti­fied that he heard coun­terin­tel­li­gence di­rec­tor Wil­liam Stephens say while dis­cussing the com­plaint that in the Air Force, they dealt with trou­ble­mak­ers by iso­lat­ing them and tak­ing away their job func­tions and their feel­ings of self­im­por­tance.

“‘It re­ally both­ers them,’ ” Bishop re­called Stephens say­ing.

On the stand, Stephens de­nied ever mak­ing such com­ments.

He tes­ti­fied that “it’s al­most laugh­able” to sug­gest he ever made a plan to pun­ish em­ploy­ees for fil­ing com­plaints.

But Burke al­leges that such treat­ment is ex­actly what she ex­pe­ri­enced.

She said she was made to email her su­per­vi­sor and tell him when she was sign­ing in and out each day, as well as when she was pump­ing breast milk. She was given du­plica­tive busy work and ad­min­is­tra­tive tasks be­low her rank, she tes­ti­fied. Her desk was moved. Her per­for­mance eval­u­a­tions suf­fered.

“They would . . . not talk to her,” Bishop, her for­mer su­per­vi­sor, con­curred. “They would find small things to pick on with her, de­tails of her work” and were “giv­ing her work to do that’s already be­ing done.”

Jen­nifer Ga­beler, a for­mer DSS as­sis­tant di­rec­tor for in­tel­li­gence, also filed a gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion com­plaint against Stephens. She, too, said her boss cut off all di­rect com­mu­ni­ca­tion with her af­ter her com­plaint and also made her work more dif­fi­cult.

“I was la­beled as con­fronta­tional, ag­gres­sive, dif­fi­cult when male peers weren’t for the same be­hav­ior,” Ga­beler tes­ti­fied.

She left in July for an­other post in the DSS.

“I couldn’t do it any­more,” she said. “I could no longer func­tion in that en­vi­ron­ment. I was con­tin­u­ally be­ing un­der­mined by my peers and by my lead­er­ship.”

The coun­terin­tel­li­gence di­vi­sion is heav­ily male, she said, par­tic­u­larly in man­age­ment.

Michelle Labov, who han­dled Burke’s in­ter­nal com­plaint, said man­age­ment pushed back against her in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Af­ter her meet­ing with Stephens, she said, he ac­cused her of “man­han­dling” him and threat­ened her job.

“I thought it was rep­re­hen­si­ble how the front of­fice be­haved,” she tes­ti­fied. “They were break- ing rules left and right. It was like the wild, wild West.”

Her boss at the time, Car­olyn Lyle, con­curred, say­ing she had trou­ble get­ting the doc­u­men­ta­tion she needed from Burke’s su­pe­ri­ors and sub­se­quently got a neg­a­tive per­for­mance re­view she at­trib­uted to push­back over the case.

Stephens de­nied ever in­ten­tion­ally ig­nor­ing em­ploy­ees or re­tal­i­at­ing against Burke or Ga­beler in any way.

He tes­ti­fied that Ga­beler was re­peat­edly “in­sub­or­di­nate” and that Burke had de­manded ac­com­mo­da­tions no other em­ployee was granted.

No one was be­ing al­lowed flex­i­ble work sched­ules, he and other man­agers tes­ti­fied, be­cause of the se­ques­tra­tion fur­loughs. And no one was al­lowed to work from home as a sub­sti­tute for child care. Burke had been do­ing so with­out of­fi­cial fil­ing, he said, which might be con­sid­ered fraud.

Small ques­tioned why, if fur­loughs were re­quired, Burke could not have taken hers on Wed­nes­days.

Carl Tay­lor, Burke’s man­ager at the time, said he gave her work that needed to be done and never in­ten­tion­ally ex­cluded her from a meet­ing. “We all did ad­min­is­tra­tive tasks,” he said. “We were short on ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tants.”

Her desk was moved, he said, be­cause she had com­plained of be­ing far from other team mem­bers.

Tay­lor said that there were is­sues with how long Burke was spend­ing in the of­fice’s milkpump­ing room and that of­fi­cial pol­icy was for such time to come out of an em­ployee’s leave. But he did not re­call ask­ing her to take leave or tell him when she used the room.

Frank Mala­fa­rina, an­other mem­ber of lead­er­ship who Burke said os­tra­cized her, said he be­lieved she “was try­ing to col­lect as much pay as she could while do­ing as lit­tle work as she could.”

He de­nied ever call­ing her “princess,” as she al­leged.

The case, As­sis­tant U.S. At­tor­ney Kimere Kim­ball said in her open­ing state­ment, was re­ally about “Pa­tri­cia Burke not al­ways get­ting her way.”

While Burke’s work­place might not al­ways be “warm and fuzzy,” Kim­ball said, “man­age­ment did ev­ery­thing they could to ac­com­mo­date her nearcon­stant de­mands.”

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