Invitations to sexual threesomes from bosses, unsolicited comments about clothing, sexual organs and the carrying of firearms, and even forceful kisses in the workplace are some of the types of gender-based violence incidents that Puerto Rican female employees have experienced from supervisors and co-workers in the Puerto Rico office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which oversees the recovery process after Hurricanes Irma and María made landfall in 2017.
The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) received and confirmed these confidences through 13 testimonies from people who work or have worked for FEMA in Puerto Rico and who decided to tell their stories after the publication in March of an investigation by this media outlet that revealed a pattern of workplace harassment in the External Affairs Office of the federal agency, with at least six cases officially reported.
There is now a total of 16 cases that the CPI has documented, the majority of which are from women who have officially filed complaints against several FEMA workers in Puerto Rico for alleged situations of sexual harassment, workplace harassment, persecution, intimidation, or discrimination due to age and gender during the job recruitment process and promotion. Some of these cases, which took place between 2018 and 2020, have remained unaddressed for more than three years and in certain instances, the employer keeps the people who filed the complaint close to their alleged aggressors and they have not been given any remedies.
The CPI requested reactions and interviews on this matter for every claim related to FEMA, both local, regional, and the agency’s central office, but all refused to be interviewed and responded with general statements that do not address the questions asked and the issues reported.
Between 2017 and 2019, the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) under FEMA, had 10 complaints registered related to sexual harassment situations that took place in municipalities in Puerto Rico, such as San Juan, Guaynabo, Manatí, Culebra and Trujillo Alto, according to a list of cases that this office delivered to the CPI. However, those cases show complaints that are already closed or were resolved only.
FEMA has not provided the CPI the number of cases reported from Puerto Rico that remain open, as well as those corresponding to 2020 and so far in 2021. Despite the request to include all the data and details on the remedies offered in the closed cases, FEMA refused, indicating that any follow-up of information had to be done through another request covered in the guidelines of the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which was done, but it is a process that can take months and even years to address.
“These situations go beyond [the office of] External Affairs.” “This is a bigger problem.” “It’s a systemic problem; there are bullies all over the agency.” “You have to implode FEMA and bring new people to management positions.” “It’s a toxic environment that’s unsustainable.” “They’re a mafia; they all protect each other.”
These were some of the phrases that the sources — who requested anonymity for fear of further retaliations — expressed when the CPI interviewed them.
Since the publication of the first findings in March, FEMA has done little to address complaints or provide remedies to victims. Through FEMA’s Office of Equal Rights (OER), the agency has only sent internal communications via email outlining the different federal laws that disavow harassment, several sources said. In addition, the OER sent out a random “work experience at FEMA” form that included questions related to the topic of sexual harassment. However, one of the sources said the form required the examples to be starting in May 2020, although several of the reported issues date back to 2018.
Furthermore, several testimonies point out that FEMA maintains in their positions several officials against whom complaints are registered in the different divisions that the agency runs to handle workplace harassment, persecution, and discrimination.
For example, Rosa — not her real name — said that after months without being called up for a FEMA mission, was activated in late March for a special project. Once she joined the assignment, she said she felt anxious because she was put in a group in which there are people who are very close to her alleged aggressors. The situation reached the point that Rosa could not continue with the assignment and asked to leave the mission in May of this year.
“There’s a major disconnection between the people who assign the reservists to the projects and the offices that collect employee complaints. How can you tell me that someone who has a complaint against two people is going to be placed in an environment where [the aggressor’s] friends are, where there are people who owe them favors, where there are even relatives of one of them? I don’t understand it,” said the person affected, who has worked at FEMA since 2018 and in 2019 became a reservist, which means she is only activated for certain missions.
Since 2018, Rosa has filed several complaints in every FEMA office that handles cases of misconduct and even in the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to which FEMA’s is attached. Her complaints have been against two supervisors who, separately, allegedly made sexual advances on her while she worked at FEMA’s Manatí office. The grievances also included complaints of discrimination, misconduct, nepotism and even threats or bragging about having access to firearms. Although they were moved to other municipal offices, both officials remain in their positions at FEMA, the source said.
Her main complaint is that the federal agency has dragged its feet with the situation, they have not given her any remedy or protection and they have even ruled her out for permanent jobs in FEMA to which she has applied on several occasions. She said she even had to file a formal complaint against Alberto Fallini Camacho, a mediator assigned to her by the director of the OER, Jo Linda Johnson, because, as she explained, he re-victimized her by asking her not to report the issue and trying make her seem responsible for the situation, in addition to inserting wrong words in her testimony.
“I’m a strong person and this has affected me a lot emotionally. FEMA took away my quality of life,” said the visibly distressed victim, adding that she turned to psychological help to deal with the trauma.
The CPI asked the OER director for a reaction to this complaint, but the official did not agree to an interview. A spokesperson for the agency limited himself to saying that “FEMA takes all allegations of misconduct seriously” and that, to protect the privacy rights of those involved, they cannot “comment on any specific matter that may be ongoing.”
Like Rosa, María — also using a fictitious name to protect her identity — survived an attack of gender-based violence at FEMA headquarters in Guaynabo.
It was in 2018, when a man, of U.S descent, who had been activated by FEMA headquarters to help with the mission in Puerto Rico, followed her from the parking lot to the building’s elevator. Once inside, María said the individual threw himself on top of her to try to kiss her. “The problem is that the elevator didn’t have cameras. He didn’t rape me because I attacked him with the keys; I used the keys as a weapon. That animal was surprised,” she said. Although María did not report him for fear of losing her job, over time her trauma took its toll when she experienced facial paralysis that caused her to lose mobility in 10% of her face.
“I wanted to stay in FEMA because I had to pay debts and I didn’t have that money. That’s why I kept quiet. That’s why I tolerated it. But, I feel guilty, because maybe I could have prevented other damages,” she said. But María did make other complaints related to the atmosphere of harassment and the impediments to achieve job growth.
Like Rosa, she went to the different FEMA offices that work with complaints related to situations that infringe on human rights, such as the Office for Equal Civil Rights, the Office of Professional Responsibility, as well as the local Alternative Dispute Resolution office (ADR). She didn’t have a good experience either, she said.
“The OPR treated me horribly and at the ADR they have a person who listens to you and who sits you down with your boss to create team building, but they don’t tend to escalate cases. So, I don’t trust the agency. And I’m not pursuing a job; what I hope is that those people who have been unable to cry for help, can feel more protected,” she said, explaining why she still keeps her case open.
In addition to Rosa and María, Carmen — also a fictitious name — experienced several situations of gender violence while offering external services to FEMA through the firm CDC Smith. This company worked with FEMA from February 2019 to April 2021. According to a company statement, CDC Smith offered services through a joint venture with Jacobs Engineering Group (formerly CH2M Hill) for engineering and architectural support services.
Although Carmen responded to CDC Smith, given the nature of the company’s contract, her day job was at the FEMA offices. In fact, her former supervisor, Lionell Ortiz — against whom Carmen filed a complaint for workplace harassment — was a direct FEMA employee.
Carmen recognized that harassing and unprofessional environments were the order of the day. However, her discomfort increased when several men constantly came to her desk and left her gifts. One time, she said one of her coworkers called her to his desk, where he was gathered with other men, to ask about her clothing, because “they wanted to see her legs.” Another event that Carmen documented was when one of these men grabbed her by the face to give her an unconsented kiss on her cheek. She ended up with a laceration on her face because of the aggressor’s beard, she recalled.
Carmen has already reported all these situations to ADR, OER, and the CDC Smith staff for whom she worked. Yes, worked, because after the complaint, Carmen was suspended without pay in May 2020 before an investigation was completed or that she was given a remedy for the situation she survived. Her official dismissal was finalized in October 2020.
CDC Smith confirmed that it received a request for a reaction from the CPI, which was processed both at the firm’s offices in Guaynabo as well as at the headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts, but it did not respond to the request.
Wanda also experienced harassment, in her case, when she worked in FEMA’s Public Assistance division, which is where all requests for reconstruction projects that come in from municipalities, government agencies and nonprofit organizations are processed.
She filed a complaint with the OER in October 2019. However, the accused remained in his position where he coincided with Wanda on a daily basis and even continued to address her directly.
“He complained that I accused him of harassment. People gave me bad looks. There were many men there and people didn’t want to work with me, because they thought they couldn’t talk to me,” she said.
In 2020, the offender was transferred to a FEMA office in Caguas. However, Wanda regrets that the OER never informed her what the conclusion of her case had been and if the man’s transfer responded to her complaint.
“[The Office of] Equal Rights never reached out to me. I asked about the status once because they weren’t aware of what was going on. They didn’t give me any mechanism or remedy. They don’t fire them, they do like they do with pedophile priests, who are removed from the parish and moved somewhere else, and impunity prevails. Even though he’s in Caguas, my fear is that they will eventually move me to some division where I’ll coincide with him again,” she said.
In her complaint at the OER against her supervisor for workplace harassment, Carmen documented how the dispute mediation processes in FEMA’s ADR office did not work in a strong outcome for her case. On the contrary, she told the CPI that when the staff of that office held a meeting with her, her supervisor, and his supervisor, Ana Vidal-Martínez, the tone of the meeting sought to hold her accountable for what happened.
As she has done before, Carmen made her complaint to the OER following the Notification and Federal Employee Antidiscrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR Act), the protections of the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO), and the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Policy Statement Against Discrimination.
In her complaint, Carmen explains how Ortiz, her immediate supervisor, moved her to a desk next to him to allegedly keep greater control of her tasks. She said Ortiz spent the day looking at her computer screen, watching everything she wrote. Later, he began to keep her out of meetings and stopped authorizing her Saturday work shifts, which involved overtime in her salary.
“When I saw that the situation with my supervisor wasn’t going to change, I contacted the person who coordinates external employees within FEMA to explain the situation with him [Ortiz] that I had been a victim of sexual harassment by another guy and that the company [CDC Smith] was not taking action on the matter,” she said.
That’s when they decided to go to ADR, where they were met by María Rosa La Luz. “But everything was worse,” said Carmen. “That meeting at ADR was one of the worst experiences I’ve had in my professional career. Everything changed. According to them, I was responsible for the constant visits of men to my desk. They even told me: ‘You had to stop the men’ and that I was responsible for the way they approached. All this, while the coordinator of the external employees said nothing,” she recalled.
After that meeting, Carmen filed a formal complaint at the OER against Ortiz, Vidal-Martínez and La Luz, which is currently under investigation. Ortiz did not respond to a request for an interview or a petition for an official reaction. Meanwhile, La Luz said she would not answer the CPI’s questions. Both she and Vidal Martínez referred to the general response that FEMA sent to this media outlet in early June.
Sonia is also claiming an “unfair and flawed” suspension of employment, as Carmen did.
In her case, she worked in the FEMA Office of External Affairs in Puerto Rico. Her immediate supervisor was Ana Bolívar, about whom the CPI received several testimonies and complaints against her for allegedly rude, unprofessional treatment and bullying toward her work team.
Sonia worked from November 2017 to December 2019, when she was fired due to “downsizing.” “But, in that cut, they only fired me, although there’s a lot of work to be done there,” she said. Sonia believes the reason for her dismissal was retaliation after several of her colleagues filed a complaint with the FEMA Office of Conflict Mediation (ADR).
“One day, Ana Bolivar took three of us to a small room to tell us that we were doing a mediocre job. I was the only one who complained at that meeting. She always had a very despotic attitude. She didn’t let anyone speak in meetings. She was very sarcastic. She sent a lot of threatening emails,” Sonia recalled.
Although she filed a complaint with the OER, she had no follow-up from that division.
“When I was fired, I wrote an email to [the Office of] Equal Rights explaining everything. They responded with a ‘received’ and sent me a flyer with the definitions of what harassment entails. I said yes, it applied, but they never answered me,” she said. The CPI sought a reaction from Bolívar, but the official did not respond.
Manuel — not his real name — who has been with FEMA since 2018, also complained against his immediate supervisor for workplace harassment and excessive scrutiny. After that complaint was submitted to the ADR office, he said the conditions got worse.
“After the complaint, I was really reprimanded. He didn’t want to approve justified overtime. He watched over what time I came in, questioned what I was doing, which is the same thing I always did,” he explained. Faced with this situation, Manuel requested a change to another division in FEMA. However, the transfer had to be signed-off by his supervisor, the same one against whom he had filed a complaint.
“When he found out that I accused him, he stepped up the workplace harassment even more. When I asked for a transfer to another division, he didn’t authorize it until he got a letter from me apologizing for the accusation. I had to do it because my mother was sick and I needed the money,” he said.
Manuel agreed with his colleagues that beyond accusing the alleged aggressors or harassers, the problem is that FEMA does not act on “any” of the complaints, allows impunity and does not offer solutions.
“What really needs to happen is that the FEMA divisions that are trained to investigate and establish blame and possible outcomes have to do their job. Complaints are filed and they’re very superficial, they don’t go beyond what’s revealed in the complaints,” he lamented.
The situations exposed by these FEMA employees go against the regulations that DHS officials, and by extension those at FEMA, must respect, which are established by the Office of the US Special Counsel (OSC) that investigates and prosecutes cases about prohibited practices by federal personnel. The OSC’s primary mission is to safeguard the principle of the merit system by protecting federal employees and applicants for federal government jobs against practices prohibited under the Civil Service Reform Act. This office also protects employees from retaliation for reporting government corruption, under the Whistleblowers Protection Act.
Jane — not her real name — has been working with FEMA for eight years. She is a US descendant and has been activated for jobs in at least 20 locations in the United States and its territories. In Puerto Rico, Jane was a part of FEMA’s recovery mission twice after Hurricanes Irma and María in 2017 and the earthquakes in 2020.
Although she was not a direct victim of the persecution and harassment situations at FEMA, Jane approached the CPI wanting to support the reported complaints and provide an outside perspective.
“I was in Puerto Rico from October 2017 to March 2018 and then from August 2018 to December 2018. In that time, I saw a lot of harassment, too much. It was always the men who did the harassment, it didn’t matter if they were from abroad or from Puerto Rico,” she said.
Jane said that in the dozens of places that she has worked with FEMA, she always knew of cases of harassment. However, she said that “harassment is part of FEMA’s culture, but in Puerto Rico it’s worse.”
“I’ve seen [harassment] in many places and it’s not just sexual harassment or job favors; it’s nepotism and contracts to friends. But it’s worse in Puerto Rico. What I saw in Puerto Rico, I hadn’t seen anywhere or as bad,” she commented.
For Jane, the problem becomes a bigger issue when considering that these people are carrying out these actions in places and times that are paid for with public money.
“It was very uncomfortable to witness these situations knowing that they’re people who are being paid with taxpayer money and are doing these things — such as harassment, favoritism and placing family or friends in jobs — while being paid with public money. All of this can continue to create a negative image of the recovery process in Puerto Rico,” she said.
She regretted that federal agency officials who could act upon the matter aren’t handling these situations more diligently.
“What’s happening in Puerto Rico stays in Puerto Rico, especially, because of how you see that the accused are kept in their positions or go to other similar positions in agencies or contractors close to FEMA,” she said.
The CPI asked for a reaction from Gretchen Sierra Zorita, responsible for the affairs of Puerto Rico and other US territories at the White House’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, but the official was not available. In written statements, Audrey López, press director for Hispanic media at the White House, said, “unfortunately, we cannot answer this request,” without giving further explanation.
The OER has registered 992 complaints across the United States and its territories for situations that violate workplace civil rights between 2012 and 2020, according to data published each quarter, with the highest number of complaints filed in 2018. FEMA’s mission in Puerto Rico to address the post-hurricane emergency began in 2017. When looking at the statistics, only 16% of the complaints registered in the past nine years have received some type of warning or disciplinary action from FEMA.
OER Director Jo Linda Johnson said through a spokesperson that “FEMA takes every allegation of harassment or misconduct seriously and established an Office of Professional Responsibility to ensure that we investigate each allegation promptly, fairly and thoroughly.”
However, the OER did not explain why the number of disciplinary actions is so low when compared to the complaints that this division has registered between 2012 and 2020. The CPI has been waiting since February for the breakdown of these statistics that were requested from the OER through the FOIA guidelines.
Meanwhile, the DHS Office of the Inspector General is currently conducting a study to identify “FEMA’s handling of employee allegation of sexual harassment and workplace sexual misconduct.” DHS spokeswoman Tanya Alridge said they hope to issue a final report and recommendations by fall of this year.
In the case of the Office of External Affairs, the CPI revealed in March that the complaints of several employees were against this office’s directors, Juan Andrés Muñoz Torres and Ricardo Agosto Castro, director and deputy director of External Affairs, respectively, who are accused of allegedly being responsible for these workplace harassment situations that have led to the resignation of employees, transfer of duties, assignment of unrelated tasks and the obstruction of work progress within FEMA. Three months after the publication, both officials remain in their jobs and in constant contact with some of the people who complained against them.
According to one of the sources, after the publication there were several days of silence and immobility at that office. Then, on March 8, Muñoz Torres convened an orientation session with all the staff, team building, he said, to discuss several issues, including the CPI’s report.
“Before starting the activity, I wanted to talk a bit about a topic that I know is on everyone’s mind. Last week [March 4] an article was published in which certain claims were made about Ricardo [Agosto Castro] and me. Although we cannot comment beyond the expressions from the region, we want each of you to know that the statements in the story won’t sidetrack us from our mission,” Muñoz Torres is heard saying in a recording to which the CPI had access.
He also made a call to continue with the work and ignore any matter related to the published complaints.
“I want you to know that we’re much more than what was published. I consider you all family. In all families there’s always a bit of discrepancy, but at the end of the day we’re a family and, at the end of the day, we’ll overcome the obstacles that we must go through. I understand that many of you may feel overwhelmed, confused, and even frustrated with the story that was published. With that said, we must let this process run its course and respect the established process. Ricardo and I are confident that this situation will be resolved very soon. You don’t know how sorry I am for any anxiety or stress that this news may have caused you,” he added.
Agosto Castro, meanwhile, remained silent during the two-hour meeting, several of the sources present at the gathering said. However, several of the people contacted agreed that in recent weeks both officials have resumed the hostile treatment.
José Baquero Tirado, Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator at FEMA for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, denied the CPI an interview on the matter and did not want to answer questions in writing. When approached by this media outlet after a meeting in La Fortaleza on June 2, he limited himself to saying that he would not comment on the matter.
Baquero Tirado referred to the generic statements issued by FEMA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The statements do not address any of the questions about the 16 complaints documented at its Puerto Rico office.
Through a FEMA spokesperson in Washington, D.C., the agency said it is “100% committed to providing a safe and healthy environment for everyone.”
It added that RAND Corporation recently released the results of a 2019 survey that FEMA requested, which was designed to evaluate the prevalence of workplace harassment and discrimination within the agency.
In 2018, FEMA officials launched an internal investigation based on allegations of sexual harassment by a senior executive at the agency. It would be the first of several investigations into alleged inappropriate sexual behavior by FEMA senior executives with subordinate employees, some of whom subsequently resigned or were terminated. The agency announced additional steps to address sexual harassment inside the organization, to include mandatory training, counseling services, and standing up an Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR),” the document states.
About 44.9% of the 19,917 female and male employees who worked for FEMA in 2019 throughout the United States and its territories participated in the survey. According to the study, 20% of those surveyed reported experiencing civil rights violations due to sexual harassment or gender discrimination, that is, one in five employees. The cases were reported by one in five women surveyed and by one in seven men.
As part of the action plan drawn up by the agency to address the problem — which in theory was to be implemented in 12 months starting in December 2020 — FEMA intends to strengthen the commitment of employees toward better labor practices, promote education on issues such as persecution and harassment, improve internal communication, provide resources to employees, refine accountability, and monitor and evaluate everything implemented. The plan does not say what remedy would be given to victims who have already filed complaints and what would be the reprimands to those accused who are found to have acted outside the legal regulations of the federal government.
If you or someone you know is experiencing gender violence, refer to the following directory of organizations that offer help and aid: https://pazparalamujer.org/directorio-ayuda/
You may also contact the Office of the Women’s Ombudsman by calling 787-722-2977.
Víctor Rodríguez Velázquez is a member of Report for America.
8 septiembre, 2022 LEER MAS