PEORIA -- On the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Vickie Elston, a disabled American, was fired from her job of three decades with the Community Workshop and Training Center, a Peoria agency whose mission is to help the disabled.
Vickie, 57, was fired for allegedly making a racial slur against a co-worker at the agency. She denies making the slur.
The Workshop is a sheltered workshop where the disabled are employed at piecework rates packing parts for area businesses, and where they and other workers, some sent by the courts, do other work for sub-minimum wages or the minimum wage. There’s no union for the workers, of course. They are at the mercy of the managers.
An agency manager, Jim Simpkins, said Vickie had made racial slurs against blacks and other ethnic groups previously and been warned not to do it again. That’s not connected with her disability, he said testing has shown.
“She will not discontinue racial comments,” he said. “It’s not only blacks, its Lebanese,” he said. “We have to weigh benefits to other consumers (workshop clients) over Vickie’s benefits.”
Vickie suffers from seizure disorders and has glaucoma so severe that she cannot read the paperwork furnished to her by the agency. She also has trouble standing for long periods of time. Nevertheless she’s a good worker, according to Simkins.
Vickie said she never made the slur, and that a black woman who dislikes her and has actually threatened her a few times made the complaint after misunderstanding what Vickie said to her. This woman has a prison record, according to paperwork furnished to Vicki, but workshop managers chose to believe her instead of Vickie. Why?
Vickie is legally disabled but she has a strong sense of justice, and has filed complaints against the workshop with the Illinois Human Rights Authority for financial irregularities in the way the disabled are paid, and even for not heating the building adequately in the winter.
So did the workshop take the opportunity to get rid of a whistleblower?
And why would her co-worker accuse her of making the slur, and dislike her?
Vickie said it’s because she is a good, fast worker, packing parts as required, while others loaf. They don’t like her for being an efficient worker, she said.
Managers dislike her because she questions what goes on, she believes. Vickie said that when she asks about her work, which must be tallied to compute her pay, she’s told it’s none of her business.
The person she asks also swears at her, she said, but is not disciplined.“The way they cuss you out when you ask a question, they get by with it,” she said.
Vickie lives on her disability income, and the extra money she makes at the workshop is precious to her, she said.
She also needs the workshop for a sense of community, she said, and wonders what she will do with her long days without a place to go. She doesn’t want to sit around idle, she said, but her disabilities make finding other employment almost impossible.
She doesn’t own a car or computer because of her limited vision and income.
When the incident occurred on July 8, Vickie was sent home but told she was only temporarily suspended. Then she got the call saying she was fired.
The workshop has a grievance and appeals process, but the procedure is weak.
A counselor, employed at the workshop, acts as a neutral advocate, Simpkins said.
After a meeting with the managers, under the grievance process, no minds were changed. Vickie was officially discharged.
On Aug. 4, she met with the workshop’s human rights committee, the final step in the grievance procedure, and took me along to observe.
She knew only one person, a manager, on the committee and the others were not introduced to us.
She had no opportunity to confront her accusers. Without a lawyer to protect her and demand due process, she was on her own.
She and I went in to speak to the committee for 15 minutes -- a time limit not announced in advance -- and the workshop advocate asked Vickie to tell her story, which she did as best she could.
The advocate who ran the meeting would not allow me to record it, but did allow me to speak, where I was able to bring up the issue of retaliation -- a term Vickie was not familiar with.
I also pointed out that Vickie denies making the slur, an issue Vickie did not make clear during her monologue to the committee.
That was it. We were ushered out of the room.
Simpkins was called into the meeting next, after we left. Whether other witnesses against Vickie also spoke we don’t know, because we left the building and I drove her to her residence. She had no opportunity to challenge their assertions.
The next day, the advocate called to say Vickie was still fired.
She can appeal to the Human Rights Authority, through the Illinois Guardianship and Advocacy Commission.
Meanwhile it mailed Vicki a report from the grievance she had filed months ago. She is unable to read the nine page document, but it states that some of her complaints were upheld and others denied.
For background, it states that Illinois law requires that workers be discharged from this type of workshop only if there is maladaptive behavior that totals more than 5 percent of a day, or if the behavior puts the client or others in serious danger. Neither situation applies to Vicki, but she was fired anyway.
Meanwhile Vicki also has received a form from the Human Rights agency to fill out, which she also cannot read, much less complete.
It cites a federal court case, Cooper v. Salazar, which orders the Illinois Human Rights Department to stop “relying on credibility determinations made without affording the rights of confrontation and cross-examination.”
That’s exactly what Vicki did NOT receive during the final hearing at the workshop.
Vicki is not optimistic about the Human Rights agency, and said its staff members typically take the side of the workshop against her.
She also wonders whether she should try to go back to the workshop, though she needs the money and the community.
“They mistreat the handicapped. Nobody wants to believe a word you say. Others are scared to back me up. No one will believe me,” she said, in tears at the hearing. “It’s discrimination against the white handicapped. They suspend me but not anyone else.”
In an earlier phone conversation Simpkins emphatically denied that, and said Vicki has anger issues. “It’s a sad situation,” he added.
-- Elaine Hopkins