Three female employees of a Michigan Medical Examiner’s Office have been fired amid an investigation into allegations of a ‘toxic work environment’ that included disturbing claims of sexual harassment and racism.
The probe at the Macomb County Medical Examiner’s Office was spurred after one employee brought a cake into work that was decorated with a black penis on May 26 – the day after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Considered to be the final straw for one female worker, she officially filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Macomb County on July 18.
The worker, who has not been named, also accused a supervisor and three colleagues of mocking black families who were inquiring about the deaths of their loved ones, hanging pornography up around the office and then bullying any women who protested about the lurid decorations.
The employee – who identified herself as a death investigator and person of color to the Detroit Free Press – said the workplace misconduct had been going on for at least the last five years.
‘I was livid — furious actually,’ she told the outlet of the moment the graphic cake arrived at the office. ‘All these cities are on fire for the Black Lives Matter movement, and here’s my staff eating a black penis cake as a joke? That really pushed me over the edge.’
In her complaint to the EEOC, the worker said the ‘office culture is tainted with racism toward people of color. This was not only ignored by managing personnel, but participated in by the supervising staff.’
Three female morgue workers were fired as part of the investigation last week. A fourth member of staff is currently under investigation, Macomb County’s Director of Human Resources, Andrew McKinnon said.
‘We don’t want anyone working in a place that’s unwelcoming, unsafe and not inclusive,’ McKinnon added. ‘We’re supposed to set an example. When we hear these types of allegations, we take them seriously and we take quick action.’
McKinnon said that the three terminated employees were let go for being part of a sexual discriminatory workplace, not for racism, and that investigators have not been able to substantiate any allegations involving racism.
In addition to the genital cake, the three workers were found to have selected images of penises as their screen savers, in addition to drawing them on sticky notes and printing them at work.
Contrary to McKinnon’s claims, the death investigator says she witnessed numerous instances of ‘blatant and over racist communications’ among a supervisor and other employees who are said to be part of the same workplace clique.
The worker says she has overheard multiple racists and insensitive comments from staff when dealing with African American families who have come to the morgue to inquire about their loved ones.
One of the questions she says she regularly heard when dealing with upset family members was ‘Are they a black family?’
In one cited incident, the worker said the decomposed body of an African-American male had arrived at the morgue to be identified by his parents.
However, the grieving family members had difficulty identifying the remains and were unsure it was their son.
The death investigator recalled one of the morgue workers telling her: ‘Show them a picture of his penis. Maybe they’ll recognize him by that.’
In a second purported incident of apparent racism, a distraught family had been inside the morgue and damaged some doors in an unspecified act of emotion.
When the death investigator called a supervisor to report the incident, the supervisor allegedly ‘later called back and said, “Are they black? … They can break the doors and nothing will happen to them with everything going on, because they are black. They’ll just say they were upset,”’ according to the complaint.
The death investigator said she was often given the responsibility of identifying the remains of African Americans whose families were considered ‘hostile’ or difficult’ by other members of her team.
When the families of the deceased would show up at the morgue, she claims she was told to ‘Go deal with your people’.
The death investigator called the purported conduct and statements ‘offensive and appalling’ in her complaint. She also said she was forced to work in a hostile environment where sex is often joked about, particularly where male genitalia is concerned.
She says her colleagues had penis screen savers and often printed images of naked men to display them on their desks, along with penis-shaped confetti – which was also scattered across counters and on the floor.
The death investigator says she wasn’t the first to complain, however nothing was ever done previously.
One worker even filed a sexual harassment complaint against the Macomb County Morgue with the EEOC in 2016, making a similar allegation of a hostile workplace. That employee was fired after making the complaint, which is still pending.
‘I have witnessed prior employees resign due to constant bullying and ridicule for ‘not being onboard’ with the office culture,’ the most recent complaint states. ‘Within the past two years, the hostile work environment has progressively worsened and the harassment has amplified.’
The complainant says she could stand to allow the behavior to go unchecked no longer on May 26, the day after George Floyd died gasping for breath under the knee of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin.
On that date, the complainant says a staff member, who was not on duty, came into the officer to bring in a medium-sized cake decorated with a black penis.
The cake was taken into the conference area, which also served as the office lunch room, where it was shared by morgue workers and supervisors, according to the complaint.
The following day, the death investigator inquired to a supervisor as to why the offensive phallic cake was permitted but received no response.
The following day, she says she was approached by the worker who made the cake and was asked, ‘Did you try my cake?’ the Free Press reported.
The investigator responded ‘no’, then asked if she herself had frosted the cake with a black penis.
‘She began to laugh and stated, “Yes, I did,”’ the complaint says.
Late the same day, the investigator was in the conference room when she noticed the cake was still on the counter, covered by a brown paper towel.
She said she heard a secretary ask a supervisor about the cake: ‘Is that really a black penis cake in the conference room?… That is not funny.’
The investigator said a number of others complained, however nothing was done. Instead she claimed more sexual images cropped up around the office, including a photo of a man’s groin in a tight bathing suit and a balloon with a penis hand-drawn onto it.
She further claims that in the past, anyone complaining about the ‘unprofessional decorum’ was either ‘viciously harassed’ or bullied into resigning.
‘I have witnessed co-workers crying at their desks, crying in the parking lot, and crying in the bathroom of the building,’ the complaint states.
Before making the complaint, the investigator said she tried to limit her exposure to the apparent hostility and harassment by switching to the night shift and moving desk.
She told the Free Press she felt compelled to come forward because the behavior had become so ‘egregious, so out of line and so brazenly conducted on a daily basis — and nobody cared.’
The county and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are still investigating the complaint.