A former WWOZ employee has filed a discrimination claim against the nonprofit radio station, saying her supervisor created a hostile work environment where she was repeatedly called “black woman” instead of her name and then faced retaliation from management when she complained, according to documents filed with public agencies.
The employee, Pearl Ricks, described in interviews with NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune what she claims were frustrating months at WWOZ that she said exacerbated her mental illness and showed a lack of care by managers to handle her complaints fairly and discreetly.
Ricks, who is African-American, detailed most of her allegations in a complaint she signed in December and filed with the Louisiana Commission on Human Rights and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She provided copies of her filings to NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. The EEOC is charged with enforcing civil rights laws in the workplace.
Three station employees said in separate interviews that they witnessed some of the conduct Ricks alleges. They and a former WWOZ employee also described an office where some supervisors used racial or belittling terms to refer to some minority employees.
WWOZ began broadcasting in 1980, and in the decades since has come to be regarded as an important New Orleans institution. These days, according to the station’s employee handbook, WWOZ’s “mission is to be the worldwide voice, archive, and flag-bearer of New Orleans culture and musical heritage.”
Ben Chapman, a lawyer who represents Friends of WWOZ, the non-profit that manages the radio station, said in an email that WWOZ “adamantly denies Ms. Ricks’ allegations.”
Chapman’s statement said WWOZ “is actively assisting the EEOC with its investigation; and anticipates a positive outcome. WWOZ remains committed to providing an employee friendly workplace, and maintains a zero tolerance policy regarding discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.” The statement said the station could not comment further “on personnel matters in order to protect employee privacy and confidentiality.”
In her filings, Ricks said her former supervisor, current WWOZ director of development Marcel McGee, who is also African American, began calling her “black woman” instead of her given name soon after he joined the station in August 2017. One current WWOZ employee, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, recalled overhearing this “20 or 30 times.”
“I told him, over and over, ‘Don’t call me that,'” Ricks said of McGee. “His whole thing was, ‘Oh, well aren’t you a woman? Why can’t I call you that?'”
McGee did not respond to several email and telephone requests for comment.
“To feel like I was kind of nothing, just a black woman who was on staff, was really uncomfortable,” said Ricks, who volunteered with the station before she was hired as outreach coordinator in 2016.
Pamela Wood, a former WWOZ employee who served for two years as chief development officer and was Ricks’ supervisor before Wood was laid off in 2017, said she recalled other instances of discriminatory language being used toward Ricks. During her time with the nonprofit, Wood said, she heard Ricks referred to as “the darkest person here” by a former WWOZ employee.
That employee “doubted her every step of the way,” Wood said, which she found needless because Ricks usually “had everything thought out.”
“No one had a harder go of it than” Ricks, Wood said.
Wood left WWOZ before McGee came on board. But she and the current WWOZ employees said the way McGee allegedly referred to Ricks was not out of step with how others there have referred to other black women at the station. One employee described how someone else routinely referred to black female employees as “sister-girl,” a term not used for white staffers.
This same employee described how another employee has led into conversations with the phrase “I know you’re a strong black woman, but … .”
“It takes away your worth, if you allow it to,” said the employee, who also declined to be named for fear of retaliation.
Last August, Ricks met with McGee to formally request he stop calling her “black woman,” according to a timeline she emailed in October to WWOZ’s chief financial officer, Beau Royster, who is named in the employee handbook as the nonprofit’s first point of contact for human resource concerns. Royster did not return an email message seeking comment.
McGee did not stop using the phrase to refer to Ricks, she claimed, though he used it less frequently.
Ricks claimed in her email to Royster that soon after the August meeting she overheard a conversation with an unidentified WWOZ employee in which McGee “stated that if a black woman wanted a partner outside of our race we could sell out if we wanted.” At the time, Ricks was dating Adam Daniel, a white man, and though Ricks does not know if McGee knew about the relationship, she became concerned about her boyfriend visiting her at work.
“We couldn’t even have a lunch date and not feel weird about it,” Daniel said of the time he and Ricks were dating.
Ricks aired her complaints about McGee in a November meeting with Royster and WWOZ general manager Beth Arroyo Utterback, which Ricks cited in her EEOC complaint.
In that meeting, Ricks wrote in her complaint, she was told “none of my coworkers felt the same … and that Mr. McGee submitted his own story.” Her EEOC filing said she was presented with two options: Get in line or find new employment. Neither Royster nor Utterback responded to a request for comment about the nature of the meeting.
Later in November Ricks met with the Human Resources Committee of WWOZ’s board, asking to be transferred to the organization’s satellite office for three weeks because she didn’t feel comfortable working in the same office as McGee. The three weeks were how long she said her psychiatrist recommended for a new prescription medicine, which Ricks said would have helped her anxiety, to take full effect. That request was denied, she said.
Ricks submitted a letter of resignation Nov. 16, calling WWOZ “a huge part of my life and heart.” Since then, she began working with another nonprofit with an interest in criminal justice reform, a job that interested her in part because of theft and forgery charges she faced seven years ago – “when I was young and stupid,” she says, before she moved to New Orleans. Those charges were withheld, and Ricks pleaded guilty to criminal mischief, but the experience pushed her to work with at-risk youth and disenfranchised populations.
Ricks said she wants WWOZ to implement training to prevent sexual harassment and bullying and to foster diversity.
Her complaints come as all public media stations receiving support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting came under new requirements in March to have “annual harassment prevention training for all officers, employees and interns” to keep their grants. The CPB offers the training online for free.
In a December 2017 manager’s report posted on the station’s website, the CPB is noted as being WWOZ’s second-largest funder. Letitia King, senior vice president for the CPB, could not confirm May 2 whether WWOZ was already in compliance with the anti-harassment policy, but noted the radio station has until Oct. 1 to fulfill the training requirements.
WWOZ said it has scheduled a training session for all managers for May 23, and additional sessions for all officers, employees and interns, to be completed by June 30, “well in advance” of the October deadline.
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