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Out of surgery and into court

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UPMC faces lawsuit, diversity training for discrimination

Anthony Breznican

Editor-in-Chief

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After working for seven years in the personnel department of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Catherine Loughner received numerous awards for her efforts to employ minority and handicapped people.

Her superiors even praised her work as a fine example of the hospital's hiring practices.

But since March of 1996, the UPMC has been inundated with claims of racial harassment. Loughner, a white woman, resigned out of protest in December and has filed a lawsuit against Pitt alleging that discrimination became a hiring policy of the hospital corporation.

Now, officials are beginning diversity workshops for UPMC managers, based on the recommendation of a special board hired to examine the hospital.

But Loughner claims racial harassment continues to this day and the hospital corporation's efforts are "just a big joke."

UPMC officials refuse to discuss any litigation, and they say efforts at diversity training have nothing to do with complaints of racial harassment.

"We're growing so significantly in so many areas that managing diversity is just a basic tool of good management," said Ron Forsythe, UPMC vice president of facilities and support services. "This is not a knee jerk response to [the allegations.]"

Charges of discrimination first came from workers in Forsythe's own department and were sent through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations. Spokesmen from both organizations are forbidden from commenting on the cases.

Loughner filed her complaint in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas and is suing for back pay. The case is still pending.

She said the problem began more than a year ago, after her superior, Joann Matten, ordered her to start building a better hospital staff by hiring people from "non-special interest" groups.

"I guess they didn't think minorities contributed to profitability," Loughner said.

Matten was unavailable for comment.

Ignoring the order, Loughner continued to interview people with disabilities and those of different races.

She said she believed the order purposefully denied equal employment to people based on color and non-job-related handicaps.

"I was the only person in the office who had to follow a quota," she said. "It started after six years, and I was written up if I did not meet [hospital] standards."

Loughner said "hospital standards" meant interviewing only white, non-handicapped individuals for the UPMC temporary pool.

"Before, I hired people for various temporary positions who had handicaps, like deaf people who did billing, or a [minority] research assistant," she said. "Some stayed on as full-time employees, even though they only started as temps, so they must have been fine employees."

But Loughner's superiors did not agree with her.

A month later, Matten again ordered her to make interviewing minorities and disabled people a "last priority," the lawsuit alleges.

Loughner said she continued to disobey these orders and was punished by superiors with an "oppressive" workload. She received letters of warning during the summer after failing again to meet her quota of white and non-handicapped people.

Sid Seligman, UPMC director of human resources, received numerous objections about the policy from Loughner, the lawsuit stated.

In response, Katie Devine, assistant administrator of human resources, told Loughner that the hospital will "no longer have the luxury" to hire people from special interest groups as it continues to grow, according to the lawsuit.

Neither Devine nor Seligman could be reached for comment.

After letters of warning from her supervisors, Loughner says she objected to the policy to various other managers including the assistant labor counsel, the director of Employee Relations and even so high as the vice president of the hospital network, George Huber.

She said she received many e-mail messages from her superiors describing the hospital's wish to hire only white and non-disabled people.

"I went to [Huber] and was ignored," she said. "I wrote that conditions were intolerable, and got nothing."

Loughner's lawyer tried contacting Huber, but all complaints were referred back to Seligman, one of the alleged wrongdoers.

Her superiors continued to harass her and discriminate against others for several more months, she claims. By December, her workload had become unbearable.

"When they don't like what you say or do, they say you have a 'performance problem,'" Loughner said. Adding work to her schedule until it became impossible to finish was a way of discrediting her, she said.

Loughner's lawyer, Hoover, said it was a form of retaliation for her opposition to the hiring policy and quota system.

Because she continued to interview minorities and disabled people, Seligman, Devine and Matten made work increasingly more difficult until Loughner began to suffer physical and mental distress, the lawsuit alleges.

"They made my life a living hell," she said.

Loughner took leave in late December of 1996, until hospital officials stopped the discriminatory practices and the harassment directed toward her for fighting it.

Her lawsuit states that UPMC officials tried to hide evidence of its discrimination policy and her opposition to it by "fabricating" a letter to her on December 23.

The letter, from Matten, stated that Loughner neglected to process many of the job applications of the people she interviewed and that she failed to send letters of regret to some applicants that the hospital did not hire.

After the hospital refused to change its policy and Loughner refused to come back to work, she was fired.

Loughner said she does not know why the hospital suddenly began the policy to discriminate, but is glad she fought against them.

"People are afraid. They're afraid of UPMC. No one wants to say anything about them," she said.

Hoover said his client's efforts eventually made her an object of discrimination, too.

"When you retaliate against someone for refusing to participate in discriminatory practices, you are discriminating against that person," he said. "When you hire someone it is under an unspoken agreement that you will, one, not ask them to break the law by discriminating against others, and two that you will pay them. The hospital broke both agreements."

Loughner filed a lawsuit against the University in April and is awaiting trial. The money she is suing for is back pay and overtime earned while battling her extreme workload.

"I'm sorry that it had to be against Pitt," she said. "Pitt didn't do anything. It was all UPMC. But since the two are related, there is no way around it."

Loughner now works in the Olston Staffing Agency in Downtown Pittsburgh.

Because her case and others' are still pending, Hoover is quick to note that any changes in the UPMC are self-imposed and not the result of any court order.

Forsythe said the new diversity training seminars will affect more than 120 hospital managers next year and has already been tested on smaller groups to "good results."

"We seek to establish a different thought process on diversity," he said. "It isn't just about ethnicity, race or gender. It's about dealing with people from many other backgrounds."

Forsythe said he hopes the program will expand to train almost 12, 000 employees.

But people like Loughner are skeptical and say discrimination still hovers over the heads of hospital employees.

"There will always be naysayers and doomsayers," Forsythe said. "People will feel how they want to feel. Early evaluations of this program are very positive."