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Don’t Speak: Allegations of racism and retaliation at Connecticut DOT

**This article contains references to racial slurs, and the links to both documents and video contain racial slurs. We have removed the names of anyone not directly associated with Ortiz’s case from linked documents**

On Tuesday March 15, Luis Ortiz, a maintenance worker for the Connecticut Department of Transportation, confronted Gov. Ned Lamont following a press conference asking the governor to help with his fight against racial discrimination at the DOT.

In a video of the exchange Ortiz posted to his YouTube account, he says, “The minorities of the State of Connecticut DOT have had employees and management call them n*****s and s**cs. They’re covering it up, they’re sweeping it under the rug,” Ortiz said to the governor.

“You said call you, I have emailed your office, we need your help.” Ortiz said.

“We need to get to the bottom of it first,” Lamont replied. Lamont’s people took his name and information and said they would be in touch.

Ortiz was growing desperate. After three years of fighting a losing legal battle in federal court, filing complaints with the DOT, the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, and the NAACP, and facing numerous write-ups from management and being passed over for raises, Ortiz was making a last-ditch effort to get more attention focused on his allegations, appearing on radio talk shows, traveling to meet the governor and searching for a new lawyer to file an appeal of his case.

The allegations listed in those numerous complaints and court filings are, on their face, startling – something one might expect out of 1960s Alabama rather than Connecticut 2022 where some lawmakers are pushing to classify systemic racism as a public health crisis and numerous bills seek to right historical racial wrongs through the lens of equity.

The allegations include racial slurs used against minority employees by management and coworkers, a segregated workplace, white employees being promoted over minority employees, harassment by management, social media posts and retaliation for filing the complaints in the first place.

“I was doing this to try to illuminate racism, I was doing this to try to get the correct actions taken, I was doing this to teach people a lesson. I was doing this because I was pissed,” Ortiz said. “That’s why I was doing this, because I was angry, I was mad.”

It wasn’t just Ortiz making the allegations: several other minority workers from the DOT garage in Milford where he worked in 2019 also filed complaints in conjunction with Ortiz. 

Tyquan Williams, a former co-worker, has his own lawsuit filed in Connecticut Superior Court, alleging that he was denied training to advance his career, was retaliated against for making complaints about racial discrimination and endured a hostile work environment due to the use of racial slurs in the workplace. 

Reached for comment, Williams, who still works at the Milford garage, said racial slurs were used in front of him and directed toward him. 

“We all filed cases on them through Equal Opportunity, so they can’t deny. We all have our paperwork on it, so they can’t say we didn’t do this, but me and Ortiz are the only ones in court.”

In 2019, the governor published the state’s Anti-Harassment and Anti-Discrimination Policy, which “strictly prohibits discrimination” including sexual harassment and discrimination based on a protected class, such as racial discrimination and harassment. It also forbade retaliation against those who spoke up and “strongly encouraged” employees to report instances of retaliation.

“The Governor’s Office will not tolerate discrimination or harassment on the basis of a protected class by anyone, including any supervisor, co-worker, vendor, client or customer, whether in the workplace, at assignments outside the workplace, at Governor’s Office sponsored social events or elsewhere,” the Governor’s Office wrote.

However, the Attorney General’s Office was successful in getting Ortiz’s complaint dismissed from federal court and has moved to have Williams’ lawsuit dismissed as well.

And while the allegations are often hard to sustain – based on purported conversations, and he said/she said arguments – an internal investigation by DOT did sustain some of the complaints.

“It was gross. It was horrible. And we had to deal with it on a daily basis, or quit, or open your mouth like me and be severely punished,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz’s lawsuit and filings with the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity (OEOD), the CHRO and the NAACP paint a picture of an overall culture of racism, discrimination, retaliation and intimidation against Hispanic and Black employees.

Ortiz’s lawsuit alleges that DOT management at the Milford garage has regularly refused to provide the same training opportunities for its Black and Hispanic employees as it has for its Caucasian workers. Moreover, minority workers are routinely passed over for promotions in favor of less experienced Caucasian employees, according to the lawsuit.

In the complaint, Ortiz says he was promised training to advance his career, but that never happened, with positions being filled by white employees with less seniority. Therefore he missed out on opportunities to receive pay bonuses, known as “Q-pay,” in favor of white coworkers.

An internal investigation report by the DOT found that Ortiz wasn’t given as much Q-Pay as others but stopped short of concluding that it was due to his race or heritage.

According to Ortiz’s lawsuit, the discrimination and racism weren’t just limited to favoring Caucasian workers over minority workers for training and advancement opportunities. It was overt and explicit with both management and coworkers contributing to a racist culture at the garage. 

The internal investigations report substantiated allegations that DOT employee Russell Appleby repeatedly referred to his minority coworkers, Ortiz and Tyquan Williams in particular, as sp**s and ni****rs.

Russell Reed, a Caucasian employee, is named several times in the lawsuit for alleged racist behavior. 

According to the lawsuit, while in the breakroom with Ortiz, Tyquan Williams and Dean O’Banner, both Black coworkers, Reed played an inflammatory speech about minorities loud enough for them to hear on his cellphone. The speech stated that minorities and undocumented immigrants were not human and stated the need for the United States to build a wall to keep them out.

It is also alleged that, at a later date, another Caucasian employee, Frederick Criscuolo, was playing audio on his cellphone in the breakroom that repeatedly used the N-word. A coworker asked him to turn it off because it was offensive. Criscuolo smiled but refused to turn it off, according to the lawsuit. 

Both breakroom incidents were apparently substantiated by a DOT internal investigation.

Apparently, on another occasion in the breakroom, after getting their assignments in the morning Ortiz asked aloud why he and his coworker, Sucre Cruz, never got to work together. Criscuolo, who was crew leader at the time, stated, “If two Puerto Ricans worked together, nothing would ever get done and that’s why we separate you all.”

In a separate incident, Kelly was in the breakroom talking with employees about the switch from orange trucks to new white trucks at the department. 

In reference to the DOT’s old orange trucks and their mantra of “Obey the Orange,” meaning for drivers to slow down for work zones, Kelly allegedly said, “Now I’m going to get a bracelet that says, “Obey the White.” He then turned and looked at the minority workers in the room and said, “What do you people have to say about that? Obey the White.”

These incidents were also apparently substantiated in the DOT internal investigation.

During a confrontation between Ortiz and Supervisor Pasqualino Bruno, Ortiz asked to receive the training he was promised on the plow truck. When Bruno told him no, Ortiz protested and Bruno allegedly threatened everyone in the breakroom. “You think this is bad, from now on I’ll make you people feel right at home and run this place like a prison,” Bruno said, according to Ortiz’s complaint. 

Although the Black and Hispanic employees in the room felt targeted by Bruno’s language, the internal investigation concluded that while this incident was substantiated, it could not conclude that Bruno was targeting the minority workers because there were Caucasian employees in the room, as well.

Allegations were not just limited to the Milford garage where Ortiz worked. Other minority DOT employees submitted statements alleging they had been passed over for training and raises and endured racial slurs and harassment by other coworkers and supervisors.

In sworn statement, George Alvelo, who worked at a different garage, alleged that he had been the target of racial harassment consistently over the course of his 33-year career with DOT. Alvelo said he was subjected to racial slurs by peers and managers, was given the worst jobs, physically attacked and unjustly fired. According to his statement, he was only reinstated after six months of protesting his termination.

Victor Diaz, a DOT employee for over 15 years, said in a statement that he has, “trained countless less experienced Caucasians, only to have them promoted instead of me.”

Hispanic DOT workers alleged that they were forbidden from speaking Spanish to their fellow Hispanic coworkers by DOT management. Diaz said he was told not to speak Spanish at work because, “This is America,” and the individual “did not want to ever hear me speak my native language, Spanish, in the garage again.” He said in his statement that he was then told by his General Manager, also a Hispanic, that they were no longer allowed to speak Spanish.

Mailor Ledo, a former DOT worker of Cuban descent, said in a statement that he, too, wasn’t allowed to speak Spanish while at work. Alvelo noted in his statement that he told by Stephen Moran, who is the Transportation Maintenance Director, that he could not fly the Puerto Rican flag on a mower he was operating.

In a March 9, 2019 email from Arnoldo Cortes to Connecticut Employees Union Independent representative Deryl Walker, Cortes writes, “If I knew I was signing up to work in a place as racist and divided as this I would have stayed at the previous job I left to come work for the DOT.”

“I have worked my last job over 11 years and I’ve never felt such racist and toxic environment before but there have been many incidents in the short amount of time that I have worked here,” Cortes concluded. “I have dealt and worked with all races and backgrounds before and never felt this much discomfort in the workplace. I hope to get some acknowledgement of these actions. I never thought that I would have to go to this extent for a call to action but after this experience, I had no other choice.”

Ortiz claims that his complaints and lawsuit resulted in retaliation by management, being passed over for raises in 2019 and 2020 due to unfavorable employee evaluations, being placed on paid administrative leave for extensive periods of time and eventually being transferred to another garage entirely.

According to his performance evaluations, Ortiz had consistently received evaluations of “satisfactory” or above since 2012, with the lone exception of an “unsatisfactory” rating in 2013 for “Cooperativeness.”

Those satisfactory service ratings ended following Ortiz’s complaints and lawsuit. 

His performance evaluation for the time period covering September of 2018 through August of 2019 showed Ortiz scored well in all areas except “Cooperativeness,” in which he received an unsatisfactory rating. That meant he would not receive a pay raise and “may be precluded from selection for promotion,” according to a September 16, 2019 letter from DOT.

Ortiz filed a complaint with the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity (OEOD) in February of 2019. Over the course of March 2019, Ortiz received a one-day suspension, a written warning, and a two-day suspension – all of which were cited by DOT as cause for his unsatisfactory rating and potentially grounds for dismissal.

Ortiz says the moves drove him to seek out a lawyer immediately, believing that management was setting the groundwork to have him fired, and the initial lawsuit was filed on March 27, 2019. 

Ortiz claims he had been warned by DOT Maintenance Director Stephen Moran that his complaints could cost him his career when Ortiz continued to push his allegations higher up the bureaucratic ladder.

“I took it upon myself to talk to Stephen Moran, who is the district manager, and he told me to drop it, that it has been tried before, it was going to ruin my career and I would find myself without a job,” Ortiz said. “At that point, I didn’t know what to do. They had already started harassing me because I was the forefront speaker in opposition to the racism.”

“That started a small link of chains of me being written up for things all over the place so that they could take my increment raises away for the year,” Ortiz said. “It kept on and kept on until they eventually tried to fire me because I was written up at least half a dozen to eight times within a year or two.”

In a video recording posted to his YouTube page, purported DOT workers can be overheard discussing management calling them, asking them to help get Ortiz written up.

“Since 2018, I haven’t received a raise because of this,” Ortiz said. “Three different times I was put on paid administrative leave.”

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According to Ortiz and witnesses, the retaliation wasn’t limited to write-ups and poor service ratings, but rather more direct harassment and intimidation.

Ortiz says he kept a personal journal in his locker where he recorded the dates and times of what was happening in the Milford garage. Ortiz says his locker and belongings were subsequently ransacked, thrown in the trash and his journal disappeared.

In the email from Cortes to Walker, Cortes says he witnessed Joseph Kelly going through Ortiz’s locker and reading the book.

“I was bringing the garbage from the bathroom out into the garage and walked into Joe Kelly going through Luis Ortiz locker and looking threw (sic) Luis personal book and he has this look of surprise but still says to me he can’t believe what this fucking guy is writing about him in his book,” Cortes wrote. “All of a sudden Luis Ortiz book disappears. I did not bring this to Luis at the time because I was on my probation period and did not want to get involved.”

Following Ortiz’s efforts to make his claims public, including going on television and radio in 2019, he was greeted at the garage by Moran who displayed “very unprofessional, menacing and bully like mentality,” according to an email from DOT employee Roderick McNeil to Equal Employment Opportunity Director Eric Smith.

“The standing behind hovering over Luis with a menacing and intimidating stare at Luis with his arms folded made me feel very uncomfortable so much that I got up and walk out the break room,” McNeil wrote. “This behavior from our management should be unacceptable and their (sic) should be zero tolerance.”

Ortiz said his locker was trashed several times and he began to tape notes to his locker warning the perpetrator to stop and face him, which resulted in him being placed on administrative leave again and eventually transferred to a different garage as a disciplinary measure, complete with the recommendation that maybe he needed counseling and a warning that his job was in jeopardy.

“The content of the material was derogatory, personal, and escalated in intensity. When the chain of command removed the material, you continued to repost your material with personal, attacking commentary,” Assistant Agency Human Resources Administrator Wanda Seldon wrote in the January 14, 2020 letter. “You stated in the fact-finding investigation that each time your postings were removed, you ‘got angrier.’ I strongly recommend that you take proactive steps and utilize the Department’s 24/7, confidential, employee assistance provider, the Lexington Group to help you overcome any personal challenges that you may be experiencing.” 

Several of the individual employees who lodged complaints regarding discrimination and racism at the Milford DOT garage have since quit the DOT or have been terminated. 

While Ortiz, Williams and Victor Diaz remain employed at DOT, Roderick McNeil and Arnoldo Cortes both resigned from state service, Michael Leo was terminated, Sucre Cruz took a position with the Department of Correction, George Alvelo retired and Mailor Ledo is no longer employed by the state. 

Leo, a white co-worker who was included as a plaintiff in Ortiz’s original lawsuit, was terminated by DOT a month later after he backed into a telephone pole while out plowing snow for over 12 hours straight, his only on-the-job infraction, according to the lawsuit.

Following his termination, Leo sent a letter to his union representative to inform him “of the unhealthy, unfair, biased work environment at the Milford maintenance facility.”

Leo reiterates the multiple instances he witnessed coworkers and supervisors using racial slurs and then writes that he believes he was terminated for not helping Bruno lodge complaints against Ortiz.

“I respectfully declined, saying I wasn’t going to lie to get someone in trouble,” Leo wrote. “Lino was not happy. Again after that I felt as if I was being punished. My assignments were cleaning toilets and picking up litter in the rain.”

“I truly feel that I was fired because I didn’t help Lino get Luis fired. I refused to lie in a written statement for him,” Leo wrote. “I feel as if I did help Lino, I would still be employed with Connecticut Department of Transportation.” 

In his resignation letter, former DOT employee Arnoldo Cortes noted several instances where he personally witnessed white workers being favored for promotions over their more experienced minority counterparts. He specifically mentioned witnessing Ortiz be passed over and given lesser grade assignments than Caucasian workers.

“When I joined the CTDOT I thought that I was joining an organization that represented equal opportunity for all employees and a place I would be able to retire with a pension in 20 years,” Cortes wrote. “Unfortunately, it has been the total opposite. I’ve witnessed and experience discrimination and retaliation in a short period of time 1 year and 10 months at the CTDOT.”

Williams says the conditions at the garage have improved since the complaints were filed, but largely because the employees the complaints were lodged against had been transferred to other locations.

“They’ve pretty much fixed it up now since the people we put the complaints on have been moved around to other places,” Williams said. “Everybody that we complained about ended up getting a higher position.”

Most of Ortiz’s coworkers and supervisors listed in the complaints and court cases have remained employed at CT DOT but not without repercussions. 

DOT’s internal investigation found Russell Appleby used racial slurs and derogatory comments; Fredrick Criscuolo and Russell Reed played music or video on their cell phones that included slurs and derogatory remarks; Joseph Kelly “made and allowed other employees to make racial and derogatory comments;” and Donald Remson failed to investigate Ortiz’s missing notebook and follow through in addressing racial issues in the workplace. 

According to the DOT’s response to Ortiz’s CHRO complaint, discipline was meted out in the form of suspensions and employees were required to attend an “interactive diversity session to help employees voice their concerns and hopefully assist in the garage work climate improving.”

“Respondent notes for the record that due to the substantiation of some of the Complainant’s allegations, seven (7) employees were mandated to attend one-on-one additional trainings and five (5) employees were suspended from work without pay,” wrote Paula Jean Yukna, attorney for the DOT. “Four (4) employees were suspended without pay for three (3) days each and one (1) crew leader employee was suspended without pay for ten (10) work days.”

“For 2019 to 2020, all employees who received suspensions as part of their discipline will have their annual performance evaluations negatively effected which can include receipt of unsatisfactory evaluations and loss of their annual increments,” Yukna continued. “In addition, each employee who received disciplinary suspensions from work is ineligible for a promotional opportunity for eighteen (18) months from the date of his suspension.”

Kelly remains a crew leader at a different DOT garage, Donald Remson remains transportation maintenance manager and Russell Appleby remains employed as a transportation maintainer. 

Although he was named personally in Ortiz’s lawsuit and in a number of complaints, Pasqualino Bruno did not have any allegations against him sustained by DOT’s investigation and remains employed as a maintenance supervisor.

Neither Russell Reed, nor Federick Criscuolo are listed as being paid by the State of Connecticut, according to state payroll data.

Court Dismisses Ortiz’s Lawsuit

In May of 2019, the State moved to dismiss Ortiz’s complaint. In their motion to dismiss, the State argued that all counts brought against the DOT were barred by the Eleventh Amendment which prohibits Federal Courts from hearing certain lawsuits against states. The State also argued that the claims brought against Bruno and Remson in their personal capacities should be dismissed because they were never properly served.

Late in October of 2019, U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall agreed with the State and dismissed Ortiz’s complaint. 

In July 2020 Ortiz updated and refiled his complaint with the district court. The State again moved to have his lawsuit dismissed, this time arguing that the claims brought in his first complaint were barred because they had already been previously adjudged. 

Furthermore, the State argued, Ortiz had not administratively exhausted his claims through the appropriate administrative process and therefore could not bring his claims to court. Part of the problem was that he immediately moved to retain an attorney and file suit in order to protect his job, but it also meant he didn’t jump through the requisite administrative hoops before filing the suit.

However, Ortiz did attempt to seek relief through administrative channels, filing complaints with the OEOD. 

Ortiz claims in his lawsuit that he was incorrectly instructed that he could not file complaints with the CHRO or the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as long as his complaint was pending with the OEOD. 

Because of this, Ortiz said, his limited window of opportunity to file with those offices closed while waiting for the OEOD to process his claims. Eventually, Ortiz did file a complaint with the CHRO but missed their statutory 300-day deadline from the date of the alleged incidents, therefore rendering his CHRO complaints as being time barred. 

Nonetheless, Judge Hall dismissed Ortiz’s complaint again.

Tyquan Williams’ case is currently in Connecticut Superior Court and the state has moved to have that lawsuit dismissed on similar grounds.

Now that the Ortiz lawsuit has been dismissed and the window to appeal is closed, Ortiz said he fears for his job security.

After confronting Governor Lamont, Ortiz said that Lamont’s office has been in touch and has asked him to be patient while they look into the allegations. However, when asked about Ortiz and his allegations during an April 20 press conference at DOT headquarters, Lamont denied knowing anything about Ortiz or his case.

“Nothing changed,” Ortiz said. “This wasn’t an isolated incident. This is happening all over the place.”

The DOT declined to offer comment as Williams’ case is still pending.

Don’t Speak: Allegations of racism and retaliation at Connecticut DOT

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Marc E. Fitch, Senior Investigative Reporter

Marc E. Fitch

Marc worked as an investigative reporter for Yankee Institute and was a 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow. He previously worked in the field of mental health is the author of several books and novels, along with numerous freelance reporting jobs and publications. Marc has a Master of Fine Arts degree from Western Connecticut State University.

2 Comments

  1. united states iptv key
    June 2, 2022 @ 4:08 am

    A big thank you for your article.Really looking forward to read more. Keep writing.

    Reply

  2. NS
    June 8, 2022 @ 5:43 pm

    Good for him for speaking out. DEEP is the same, a lot of racism. The AG’s office should not be representing State Agencies in discrimination lawsuits, in my opinion. They have no interest in finding the truth, they just badmouth the complainants.

    Reply

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