Two former city employees have accused Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan of overseeing a toxic work environment, including one who has alleged Durkan grabbed her by the face.
Conflicting accounts of a heated exchange
A detailed report describing two sets of unrelated allegations was published in the Seattle-based online newspaper Crosscut yesterday.
According to information obtained through freedom of information requests, Mayor Durkan and an unnamed employee engaged in a heated exchange in the mayor’s office. The two were discussing how to mark the anniversary of the unsolved murder of Donnie Chin, a local community leader.
According to an account provided by Durkan’s chief of staff, Durkan said, “You’re not listening to me” and stepped toward the employee. Then, according to the chief of staff’s account, Durkan raised her hands to either side of the employee’s face without touching her.
The employee did not respond to interview requests from Crosscut, but other contemporaneous accounts of the encounter are substantially different. The unnamed employee told others that Durkan grabber her face and forcibly turned her head.
“She kept crying and said how humiliated and embarrassed she was, that the entire team saw the interaction,” a city executive assistant wrote in a contemporaneous statement.
The unnamed staffer, who claims a history of past abuse, also spoke to deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan. Arrangements were put in place so that the staffer would no longer have to physically report to Durkan’s office.
“She then told me that she would be unable to work in the Mayor’s Office because the Mayor’s presence made her uncomfortable and that the Mayor’s voice was a trigger,” Ranganathan explained in a written account.
The employee was kept on staff for six months with the understanding that she would look for other employment. She officially resigned in February without filing an official complaint.
Second employee takes legal action
A second set of unrelated allegations about the work environment in the mayor’s office were also included in Wednesday’s reporting.
Shirley Collins was hired as an executive assistant to deputy mayors Ranganathan and Mike Fong in August 2018. Collins claimed she found herself in a toxic work environment and that she had been set up to fail.
“Unfortunately, their expectations seemed to be very unreasonable, by not allowing me to progress, learn, and ask questions. Instead they chastised me when I sought help and asked clarifying questions,” she told Crosscut.
A demand letter sent to the city by Collins’ attorney, Susan Mindenbergs, claims that Collins is owed up to $1.6 million for lost wages, employee benefits, and emotional damage.
Mindenbergs also hinted at a possible pattern of racial discrimination, citing the case of the unnamed employee who alleged having her face grabbed.
“It is not lost on Ms. Collins that another female employee who is of Asian descent has been out on administrative leave after experiencing traumatic events as an employee in the mayor’s office,” she said.
The city responded to Mindenberg’s letter, refuting Collins’ claims.
City attorney Zahraa Wilkinson wrote, “At no time was Ms. Collins subjected to a hostile work environment or discrimination of any kind during the roughly six months she worked at the City.”
City officials have also noted that deputy mayors Fong and Ranganathan are both themselves of Asian descent.
Mayor Jenny Durkan responds
Durkan responded to the Crosscut story in a written response:
“We have worked hard to create a positive workplace, not just for the Mayor’s Office but across the city. Having a workplace where every employee is valued is essential for city workers to be able to best serve the residents and businesses of Seattle,” she wrote.
“In both cases, senior leadership in the Mayor’s Office worked with Seattle Department of Human Resources to listen to the employees and work to reach a fair and respectful solution aligned with the employees’ desired outcomes.”
Addressing the allegations that she grabbed an employee’s face, she wrote:
“While my recollection of this brief interaction is different than the employee’s, I learned this moment caused the employee to re-experience past pain — for that, I’m sorry. Even though there are differing perceptions of the interaction by the people gathered at the party, it is an important reminder how impactful any interaction can be in a workplace.”