PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Medical assistant Maria Frazier, who is African-American, noticed something unexpected one morning on her way to the mail room on the 11th floor of Oregon Health & Science University Hospital.
It was a miniature noose, taped to a door.
It hung above a poster that itself was a joke, giving instructions to “bang head here” as a “stress reduction kit.”
For Frazier, as for many African-American people, the noose symbolizes the time when lynchings were not uncommon in the United States. The fact that the noose materialized on Nov. 10, just two days after the election of Donald Trump, made it more disturbing for her given the dramatic surge in reports of hate speech following his victory.
The physican’s assistant who put up the noose, a 47-year-old Caucasian man, told his employer it wasn’t intended to be a racial statement, documents show. Frazier was told it was a joke about stress.
But Frazier didn’t find it funny, nor does the union that represents her.
Matt Hilton, President of Local 328 of the American Federation of County, State and Municipal Employees, said a “tone-deaf” university administration seems to have brushed off the incident, which he calls disturbing in light of other racial and class tensions that have been surfacing. The public institution is Portland’s largest employer.
“This type of behavior that she was subjected to should not be tolerated under any circumstances, but especially in a place of healing and learning,” Hilton said.
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He said the university has two standards of conduct, one for the health care providers who generate revenue, and another for those who don’t. Members of his union, he added, have been fired “for much, much less. But in this case the person wasn’t even put on leave.”
A university spokeswoman said employee privacy limits what she can say, but defended the school’s handling of Frazier’s subsequent complaint and the grievance filed on Frazier’s behalf by her union.
“OHSU thoroughly investigated the employee’s complaint and subsequent grievance in accordance with well-established policies and procedures. OHSU does not tolerate discrimination or retaliation in the workplace,” said the statement released by Tamara Hargens-Bradley.
Frazier was already feeling traumatized by another incident that made headlines in Portland. In September, her sister and mother were driving her car with her kids when a cyclist sprinkled pepper spray in the window, yelling racial slurs. The perpetrator has never been caught.
Frazier’s coworker who put up the noose saw media coverage of the incident, she says, and asked her if the police had caught anyone.
“I hate racism,” her coworker told her, according to Frazier.
But now she’s second-guessing his sincerity.
Frazier went out on short-term disability leave after seeing the noose, not certain if the message was intended for her or what. Since then, she says the university’s response — suggesting she seek counseling and meet with her coworker so he can apologize — hasn’t helped.
“Maria is a valued employee and we are sad she has perceived this incident as a racial gesture or that it was directed at her,” said the university’s Dec. 20 response to the union grievance over the incident. “Our investigation concluded this was clearly not the case.”
The university offered to reimburse her short-term disability insurer for her pay from Nov. 14 to Dec. 2, when it concluded its investigation.
But her doctor won’t let her come back to work, according to Frazier. He feels OHSU “is minimizing the noose (and) I can’t deal with it,” she said.
The union last Thursday posted a message on its blog, saying it is concerned about incidents involving race that have occurred over the previous year.
“Over the next few weeks,” the union posted, “Local 328 is going to talk about some negative experiences our members have had at OHSU — experiences that place in bold relief the differences that race, ethnicity, disability, religion, sexual and gender identification, and economic and educational status make in how employees are perceived and treated and how those differences seem to operate within the very OHSU systems designed to protect employees from those injustices.”
That same day, OHSU President Joe Robertson sent an all-staff message that hammered on much the same theme, saying the university recently has received a surge in requests from patients expressing a racial preference in their provider.
“Discrimination has no place at OHSU and will not be tolerated,” he wrote. “Recently, for example, we have had a rise in the number of reports of patients requesting to opt away from a specific provider based on race, ethnicity or creed. I want to be very clear: We will not honor such patient requests. I am committed to the fundamental principle of equity and non-discrimination. Our job is to care and cure and not to judge. We will treat all regardless of bias or bigotry, but we will not let them impose their values upon us.”
Hilton said the union expects to hold Robertson to his promise. The union’s concerns are heightened in part because earlier this year the university had to fire three supervisors in the environmental services department after an investigator found evidence of bias and lack of accountability, he said.
“It it frustrating,” Hilton added. “Just when you think you’re making progress.”
In April, the university hired a new vice president for diversity and inclusion, Dr. Brian Gibbs. He is scheduled to meet with Frazier Dec. 30.