With long-standing human rights complaint in limbo, Edmonds QFC pushes hard for company-wide culture shift
A complaint to the Washington State Human Rights Commission filed last November by a Westgate QFC employee continues to be unresolved 10 months later, but QFC said it is working to address the issues that sparked the complaint about the Edmonds store.
The complaint, filed by a 21-year-old QFC courtesy clerk, alleges discrimination directed at her due to her developmental disabilities. Her complaint states that she suffered reduced hours and was subjected to a hostile work environment in which derogatory statements, slurs and inappropriate actions directed against developmentally disabled persons were tolerated and abetted by store management. The complaint also alleges that these problems began when the current manager, Pamela Franklin, was transferred to the store.
The employee filing the complaint is the daughter of former Edmonds School Board member Susan Paine, and Paine spoke to My Edmonds News on behalf of her daughter, who will be identified in this article as B.
B. began working at QFC in September 2010 as part of the school district’s VOICE (Vocational Opportunities In Community Experiences) program, which partners with local businesses to help young adults with intellectual disabilities find employment opportunities and community experiences.
Her success working at QFC through VOICE led to her being hired as a paid part-time employee the next year.
According to Paine, her daughter enjoyed her job, receiving positive feedback from customers and co-workers. But problems began when the current manager was transferred to the store.
After filing the complaint on her daughter’s behalf, Paine worked with QFC to have B. transferred to the QFC store at 76th and 196th. “She would come home crying because of the way she was treated at Westgate QFC, and we just needed to get her out of there,” Paine said. “At the new store she’s happy and looks forward to going to work again.”
However, problems at the Westgate QFC continued.
On the evening of May 6, Susan Paine was at the Westgate QFC checkout stand and witnessed an interaction between three employees that included name-calling and slandering of a fellow employee with developmental disabilities. “I have never seen an uglier display of disrespect in my entire career,” she said. She said the name-calling showed “utter contempt,” and that this “blatant display of workplace disrespect” was witnessed by several other customers.
“I had hoped that in the intervening months since my daughter’s transfer the cultural climate at Westgate QFC might improve,” she said. “Apparently I was wrong.”
In response to this incident, Paine wrote a letter expressing her outrage to the Edmonds Mayor and City Council, the Edmonds School Superintendent and Board, QFC regional management, and Kroger management (Kroger is the parent company of QFC).
QFC was quick to respond.
On May 9, QFC Human Resources Director Sara Freitag sent a letter to the recipients of Paine’s letter in which she stressed that QFC is taking these issues “very seriously.” She stated that QFC had already responded to the Human Rights Commission about the initial complaint, was dealing with the employees involved in the May 6 incident “swiftly and appropriately,” and was taking immediate steps to ensure that incidents like this do not recur. These include a commitment to work directly with ARC ( Advocates for the Rights of Citizens with disabilities) of Snohomish County, the premier organization advocating for the rights of citizens with developmental disabilities, to implement a comprehensive training program for QFC employees.
My Edmonds News followed up with Freitag recently to find out how the training went.
“It’s been very successful and helpful,” she said. “The team has had great conversations about diversity, inclusion and respect and the growth and enhancements these things bring to the work place. In fact, after the first session, associates that did not attend were asking to participate based on the feedback from others. We’re confident that these trainings and conversations will result in an even better workplace and continued great relationships with customers and the community.
“But this is not something we’ll just walk away from after a couple of training classes,” Freitag added. “We are committed to making this a culture that continues as new associates are hired and the years go on. What happened at Westgate was unfortunate and unacceptable, but I do believe it was a bit isolated, and is not representative of company-wide culture.”
For its part, the Edmonds School District continues to see the value in partnering with local businesses in the VOICE program, which includes not only QFC but Old Country Buffet, Harbor Square Athletic Club, McDonald’s Westgate, Harvy’s Bike Shop, PCC Westgate and others.
Edmonds School District spokesperson D.J. Jakala said that in September 2012 VOICE suspended placing students at QFC Westgate in response to a request from the new store management.
“It is not unusual for training sites to take a semester or two off from hosting VOICE students so new management can adjust to their new positions,” Jakala added. “A similar situation occurred three years ago when a retailer at Alderwood Mall changed management and chose not to participate as a training site. Another instance was at Alderwood Middle School, where students were training in the kitchen.
“While we have no students at QFC Westgate at this time, we anticipate working with them again in the future,” Jakala said. Jakala was unable to comment on whether complaints had been received from students about the management at QFC Westgate.
Shayne Nagel, Snohomish County ARC Director, said she feels QFC is genuinely committed to addressing these issues. “I met directly with the store manager and the QFC Human Resources Director,” she said. “I provided them with training materials, and am confident of their commitment to take responsibility for things that may have happened, and make positive changes both at the store and at the corporate levels.”
Nagel contacted them again subsequent to the training. “QFC confirmed that training had happened, and that all Westgate QFC employees (except some very part-time folks) had taken it. Response from employees was very positive, and Ms. Freitag assured me that she will take steps to implement this kind of training for all new employees.”
Overall, Susan Paine is satisfied with outcomes so far. “I think we got the right results at QFC,” she said.
Despite this, she plans to continue pursuing her daughter’s Human Rights action. “I would like to see a finding of discriminatory practices at QFC Westgate,” she said. “This kind of thing gives a bad name to our community and needs to be called out and recognized.
“And on a personal level, I’d so value a follow-up from QFC directly to me acknowledging the problem and simply saying ‘I’m sorry.'”
— Story by Larry Vogel