Report clears Tempe of discrimination charge - East Valley Tribune: News

Report clears Tempe of discrimination charge

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Posted: Friday, December 12, 2008 3:47 pm | Updated: 11:26 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

An independent investigation has concluded there was no gender discrimination at a Tempe water treatment plant or retaliation against the woman complaining of such.

Sewer gas sickens Tempe workers

These allegations, from employee Glenda Nichols, stemmed from an industrial accident last year at the Kyrene Water Reclamation Facility that sickened her and four colleagues.

The fact-finding report, commissioned by the city this summer and released Friday, also found some merit to other Water Utilities department employees' complaints that Nichols' lack of judgment led to an unsafe work environment.

In addition, the report states, Nichols' supervisors knew of allegations regarding her performance but they took no action.

Phoenix allocated $125,000 to the report's author, attorney Ernest Calderon, for his work.

In the report's introductory letter to City Attorney Andrew Ching, Calderon said interviews with 31 employees resulted in a stack of documents 4 feet thick.

Ching said: "We appreciate Mr. Calderon's services in thoroughly investigating this matter, and that based on the findings we look forward to working with the employees in the Water Utilities Department to resolve any and all remaining concerns."

Nichols told the Tribune the report only tells part of the story because her attorney advised her and three other employees not to participate.

"I don't want to say it's completely invalid," Nichols said. "All I can say is, we knew it was going to come out this way."

She then referred requests for comment to her attorney, Stephen Montoya, and he did not return a message seeking comment.

According to city documents, Nichols has worked for the city since 1995. Last year, her base salary was $73,570 and she earned another $17,470 in overtime pay.

It was in September 2007 that Nichols and four subordinates became sick after exposure to sewer gas, known as hydrogen sulfide.

Their illnesses were not life-threatening, although one worker required additional medical treatment.

The incident happened after more than a year of debate over safety at the plant, which came online in May 2006.

Nichols and others had complained of what they saw as unsafe design, and then complained their superiors didn't listen to them.

According to the report, resolving the plant's problems was made difficult because of a communication breakdown between Nichols and her supervisors.

Nichols believed any review of operational issues, rather than backing her call for a redesign, to be an attack on her.

That became the basis for her accusation of gender discrimination and subsequent allegations of retaliation.

After Nichols leveled those charges, the report said, her supervisors were "virtually paralyzed" because they feared any action against her would be regarded as reprisal. And there was cause, such as a city investigation determining Kyrene staff - led by Nichols - violated protocol by ignoring an alarm's warning and not immediately leaving the area where gas was building up.

Inaction continued even after complaints about her surfaced from other employees.

Eventually, 16 employees complained to the city about a lack of accountability for Nichols.

That grievance led to the city hiring Calderon Law Offices to investigate.

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