Down for the County
Last year, Maricopa County employee Yolanda Robinson reported her co-worker, Joe Coulter, for sexual harassment. Apparently her complaints have been warranted--and then some.
County officials refused to release an investigation into Coulter's behavior toward Robinson. But they did offer up a redacted copy of the written reprimand Coulter received as a result of the investigation, which states in part that Coulter is being punished for the "inappropriate, discourteous, and unprofessional behavior you have exhibited towards [redacted] co-workers...."
The reprimand acknowledges that Coulter had already been "verbally counseled" in 1992 for "similar behaviors."
Coulter's punishment consisted of a warning in his personnel file, mandatory sensitivity training and behavior monitoring. But perhaps the most ironic of the disciplinary actions is the removal of one of Coulter's job assignments: He will no longer act as the Equal Employment Opportunity compliance officer for his division.
Not only were Robinson's complaints warranted, it turns out Coulter behaved poorly toward other co-workers and had been warned about such behavior before.
County Human Resources Director Shawn Nau called Coulter's punishment "as severe as we are allowed to do under our rules, short of termination."
But was it severe enough?
According to salary figures requested from the county, Coulter's pay wasn't cut. He still has a job. In fact, per county rules, once he learned of the investigation last year, he was apparently placed on leave with pay until the probe's conclusion--so he got a vacation, to boot.
County officials aren't talking. (They denied a request for the investigation, citing a February 1998 Pima Superior Court ruling denying a newspaper's access to a sexual harassment investigation into a school district employee.) Robinson's and Coulter's supervisors aren't talking--the only one who spoke to New Times says he never heard about the complaint against Coulter. Coulter isn't talking, either.
The only person talking, it seems, is Yolanda Robinson. And she isn't happy. Apparently, Joe Coulter fared better than Yolanda Robinson. She was terminated from her position as an administrative assistant in the county's Human Services division February 12, when her probation was up.
While Robinson admits she used county phones for personal calls, ultimately she blames Joe Coulter for her dismissal. Along with the stares at her breasts and behind and requests for kisses--and sometimes much more--Robinson says Coulter often warned her that he was watching her conduct in the office and that she was going to get fired, particularly for making those personal calls. She says the amount of time she spent on such calls was greatly exaggerated, possibly by Coulter.
This is not a traditional sexual harassment case. Coulter, an administrative coordinator and 16-year county employee making close to $40,000 a year, certainly had seniority over Robinson, but he was not her boss. They did not even report to the same department, although they did work in the same building.
Coulter did not have the power, per se, to fire Robinson. Thus, there is no evidence of a "quid pro quo" case of sexual harassment. But it is possible that Coulter created a "hostile environment," which is also defined by Maricopa County's policies and procedures as a form of sexual harassment.
Robinson's job performance rating was very good before she initiated a sexual harassment investigation against Coulter, and poor after the investigation.
Whether Coulter had anything to do with Robinson's termination, the fact remains that in Maricopa County you may, like Yolanda Robinson, not make it past probation for making too many personal calls, but your job is apparently secure if you tell a co-worker she needs her "pussy licked," as Joe Coulter allegedly did.
It was a typical clerical position--filing paperwork and answering phones and typing letters--but Yolanda Robinson loved her job. She was practically hired on the spot--a big ego boost--and started May 19, 1997, at $18,500, with a customary six-month probation. Robinson was grateful for the job, as she and her husband were separated, and she was then the primary breadwinner for her two children, ages 5 and 11.
The southwest Phoenix building where Robinson worked houses the county's Human Services division: Head Start, Job Training Program Administration (JTPA) and Community Services, Robinson's department, which reviews requests for utility payment assistance. Most of the Human Services employees kept to themselves, but not Joe Coulter, who works for JTPA, Robinson says. She noticed early on that he often spoke to the other female support staff, and she felt him staring at her.
One day, Robinson and Coulter walked to the cafeteria together to see what was on the menu and wound up eating lunch. Robinson recalls that Coulter immediately began asking her questions about her personal life, but he didn't make a pass at her.
When Robinson remarked that she was tired, she says Coulter invited her to sleep at his home, in his son's room. When she took a bite of a chicken wing, she says he asked her for a kiss, "talking about my lips and how big they were and how he wanted to kiss them."
She said no, firmly, and avoided him after that, she says. Looking back, Robinson's not sure why she went to lunch with Coulter; she had the feeling he was powerful, and she didn't want to make him angry. And, Robinson says, she didn't fully recognize what was going on until he asked for that kiss.
But even though she avoided him, Robinson says, the harassment got worse. For example, he would stop by to chat with her co-worker, whose cubicle was next to Robinson's.
"Instead of sitting in her cubicle, he would kind of scoot back and look in my cube, so he was talking to her but looking at me," she recalls. "Then he started saying things."
Coulter called her on the phone at her desk and walked up to her in the halls, she says, making inappropriate sexual remarks. Often, Robinson recalls, he lectured her about how she should dress and wear her makeup.
"He would make me feel dirty. I don't feel like I was acting like a whore or anything, [but] I felt that way when he would talk to me," she says.
Finally, Robinson says, she confronted Coulter, telling him, "'I don't like the way you talk to me.' He said, 'You don't need to say any more.'"
But the comments only got worse, she says.
"I started feeling bad, I would go home and complain to my mom, to my sisters and friends, even to my husband. . . . I felt scared. It just kept getting worse and worse."
One day she happened to run into Coulter in the cafeteria, on a coffee break. "He said, 'You're going to get fired if you don't stay off the phones,'" Robinson recalls.
"This kind of scared me," she says. "I thought this man knew what he was talking about, he's been here for years. . . . I felt like this man could really hurt me or help me."
Even so, Robinson says, "I wasn't going to go to Mary [Yorgensen, her supervisor]. I was just going to continue to take it and be stressed, depressed and scared. Why, I don't know. I had never experienced that before."
Finally, the harassment became unbearable, she says. "This last time I was working the switchboard," she recalls. "I had on a skirt, it was above my knees. He said, 'When am I going to get some pussy?' or something like that. 'Am I going to be your man, ever?' . . . He said, 'All you need is your pussy licked really good.' I felt really gross. I just felt bad."
That episode convinced Robinson to speak to Yorgensen, who documented her conversations with Robinson in a two-page, typed memo titled, "Documentation," dated July 18 and 19, 1997. (Yorgensen refused a request for an interview.)
Yorgensen's written description of events--the lunches together, the remarks, the stares--is basically identical to the one Robinson offers in an interview months later.
Coulter's preoccupation with Robinson's phone habits is noted in Yorgensen's memo: "Whenever he is in the support area and she is on the phone, as soon as she hangs up, he wants to know who she is talking to, was it a man, and that he bet it was." Also noted is Coulter's warning that if Robinson didn't stop making so many personal calls, she'd be fired.
Yorgensen also noted the comments Robinson says Coulter made to her at the switchboard, along with something else he said to her that evening, as she was leaving the building:
"On her [Robinson's] way out that night, she stopped to look at the sand table Head Start had just brought in and tried it. He [Coulter] came in the front door, turned right around, and said, 'You don't even know how that thing works do you? Guess you guys didn't have these kinds of toys in the ghetto.'"
On August 6, Mary Yorgensen completed Yolanda Robinson's first performance review. The review was satisfactory, citing Robinson's accomplishment in getting her department caught up with its filing for the first time in three years. Yorgensen--who was leaving for a job with the county recorder--did not mention anything about Robinson making personal calls, although she did note a need for improvement in computer skills and mentioned that Robinson should bring work with her when she answered the switchboard.
Overall, a good review. Soon after, Robinson says, she was called in to see department officials who told her Coulter was under investigation. She was interviewed by the county's Human Resources division.
Robinson says she doesn't know how Coulter learned about the investigation, but she was told by county officials that he did and thus was placed on paid leave. He returned to the office in September 1997. (County Human Resources Director Shawn Nau refused to discuss this.)
Upon his return, Coulter didn't speak to Robinson, but she did notice that at some point, she had apparently fallen from grace within her department.
"Someone in the office started complaining about me, and I don't know why," she says.
Robinson's November 6 review, conducted by her new supervisor, Steve Hedrick, looks nothing like her August review. She was marked, "Needs Improvement," and her probation was extended another three months. Hedrick noted Robinson's difficulty in meeting deadlines (she says there was really just one instance) and, again, personal calls. (Reached for comment, Hedrick says he was unaware of the harassment investigation against Coulter.)
In the review, Hedrick noted, "You agreed that you have been using the phone excessively and you intend to stop."
However, Robinson now says she only used the phone to make calls regarding her children.
"I have kids, if something's wrong I'm going to check on them," she says.
On February 12, Robinson was let go by her third supervisor, Jeanne Jertsen. (Jertsen did not return calls requesting an interview.) Robinson wasn't surprised when she was terminated, just disappointed.
"After Joe came back, I felt like all hell was going to break loose. Every day, I was scared. And even if I did do something wrong, or they weren't satisfied with my performance, I feel like that had a lot to do with it. [But] I felt like I did okay."
Yolanda Robinson shakes her head, recalling the reasons she didn't want to come forward in the first place.
"I felt like he [Coulter] had, like, power or something," she says. "And I was scared, really, I was scared the whole time. Even when I talked to Mary [Yorgensen], I said, 'Mary, am I going to be fired?' And she said, 'You don't have to worry about that Yolanda, you're going to be around here for a long time.'"
Robinson is temping now, waiting to hear back from the State of Arizona about a job.
And she has an appointment to meet with a lawyer, to discuss suing the county for wrongful termination.
Contact Amy Silverman at her online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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