‘I had a bullseye on my back’: Wisconsin state employee files federal discrimination complaint

According to recently-published research, Wisconsin ranks #6 in the country for the number of federal discrimination complaints filed by Black workers

MADISON, Wis. — Shante Cameron-Cuesta is certain she’s about to become a statistic.

She’s worked as an insurance examiner for the state since 2019, with a 10-year work history at various state agencies including the Department of Workforce Development, she said. 

But the last eighteen months have been the hardest. In her personal life, she scrambled to balance a divorce and mental health diagnoses. 

Professionally, she says she’s now battling to keep her job at the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance, after what she says has been retaliation for first filing a racial discrimination complaint about her employer with the state. The only person of color on her work team, she’s now taken her grievances to the federal government and filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“I worked so hard for the state,” she said. A mother at 16, she’s wanted to set an example her three children can emulate. 

“Now my whole state career is gonna end like this. I did not deserve that treatment.”

In March 2020, after taking a job at the OCI in 2019, the beginning of virtual work as the pandemic hit Wisconsin was also the start of what she says was escalating discrimination, micro-management, and disrespect from her direct supervisor.

Escalating tensions after virtual work kicked in

While working from home, Cameron-Cuesta says she felt her supervisor, Christina Keeley, changed her management–but only for her. She felt frequently singled out for nitpicking and micro-management, and as if it was impossible to do anything “good enough”. 

Deadlines for projects weren’t the same as for others, she said. And she felt frequently disrespected, even after she says she tried to resolve personal conflicts that her supervisor called out–like switching laundry or doing dishes during a workday. 

“It was almost like a way to dehumanize what I actually was experiencing,” Cameron-Cuesta said. “She would tell me that I was being sensitive and taking things the wrong way.”

The OCI had five Black employees as of the end of this June, or about 4% of their staff. Cameron-Cuesta said she’s the only person of color on her particular work team, and in both internal and federal complaints said she felt singled out because of her race. 

As 2020 went on, she felt like the issues escalated, despite her efforts to resolve them or improve communication with her supervisor. She believes her deadlines were different from others while key supports to do her job effectively were taken away from her. In April of this year, she decided to file an internal racial discrimination complaint about her supervisor.

The complaint initiated an investigation from Wisconsin’s Department of Administration, which Cameron-Cuesta said lasted only a couple of days and was quickly unsubstantiated. Hours later, she said, her supervisor filed her own first complaint about Cameron-Cuesta’s work performance.

“I feel like everything shifted,” she said. “I was a target at that point, I had a bullseye on my back.”

State says no retaliation after suspensions follow internal discrimination complaint

When asked about these allegations, a DOA spokesperson explained they were limited on what they could say about the allegations, because of what’s now an ongoing federal investigation after Cameron-Cuesta filed a federal complaint in September. 

But in an official position statement filed in the federal investigation, the state says no unlawful discrimination occurred, and denies the retaliation Cameron-Cuesta says happened in the wake of her complaint.

“The complainant’s supervisor was not aware of complainant’s respectful workplace complaints and therefore could not have retaliated against the employee in question for making them,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

Cameron-Cuesta’s work performance evaluations said she was meeting expectations in 2019 and 2020, according to documents reviewed by News 3 Investigates. In 2021, her first quarter evaluation said she wasn’t meeting expectations–which in her federal complaint, she alleges was backdated to inaccurate reflect her work.

“After I complained, she backdated a performance evaluation and gave me a negative review and disciplined me for something my coworkers frequently did but were not disciplined,” Cameron-Cuesta says in a complaint filed in September with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “I complained to her directly that she was treating me differently based on race.”

Since her first complaint in April, she has been suspended twice for work rule violations. The first time in June was for not completing work on time, and the second instance in September for missing in-person work.

She says that for both suspensions, her side of the story wasn’t considered–like how she says she didn’t get the email notification about in-person work for that particular day, had dialed in remotely, and came into the office as soon as she realized she needed to be there.

“They could care less,” she said. “I was told I didn’t have any rights.”

In the federal investigation, the state argues that her suspensions were unrelated to any retaliation for her internal discrimination complaint. Instead, they are because of performance issues identified through standard procedures.

“The Evers Administration is committed to equity and inclusion throughout state government – both in how we serve the people of the state and for the entire state workforce,” a DOA spokesperson said. They referenced their plan for developing diversity, equity and inclusion after Gov. Tony Evers signed an executive order in 2019 that mandated DEI plans at state agencies.

“These plans help guide how we work as state employees and agencies, with a commitment to equity and inclusion. Every state employee deserves to work in a safe, equitable workplace.”

Third Wisconsin agency accused of discriminatory work environment this year

In September, Cameron-Cuesta officially filed her federal discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying her supervisor treated her differently because of her race and color.

“She singled me out, would give me shorter deadlines for tasks than others and would frequently call to check on me while working remotely,” she wrote. 

It’s not the first time in 2021 that Wisconsin state employees of color have accused their workplaces of treating them differently because of their race.

In April, a top Wisconsin Department of Justice administrator filed a federal complaint with the EEOC, saying she’d been underpaid and harassed because of her color. In June, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that a separate investigation into the allegations was unsubstantiated, although investigators noted that one of the DOJ officials accused had engaged in “behavior of concern” but that it was not based in race or gender discrimination.

Four employees of color who had worked at the Wisconsin Department of Veteran Affairs came forward in June to tell the Capital Times that they had been treated unequally because of their race.

“Despite rhetoric in state government emphasizing diversity initiatives, they felt marginalized, micromanaged and condescended to while working at the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs,” Katelyn Ferral reported.

Complaints to EEOC rarely produce tangible results

Most people who allege discrimination with a federal complaint process still ultimately lose their jobs, according to research published this summer by the University of Massachusets-Amherst.

Professor Donald Tomaskovic-Devey and doctoral student Carly McCann analyzed never-before released data from the EEOC, finding 63% of workers lose their jobs through either termination, resignations, or some other form of being pushed out of the job where they said discrimination occurred. Complaint data is not routinely made public; the EEOC only publishes data related to lawsuits–and denied News 3 Investigates similar data.

“In some ways, this is kinda a fundamental problem around the discrimination claims generally,” Tomaskovic-Devey said. “There’s not much transparency.”

Tomaskovic-Devey and McCann’s analysis of hundreds of thousands of discrimination complaints to the EEOC in 2012 through 2016 finds Wisconsin ranking 6th in the country for the number of complaints filed for racial discrimination against Black people. 

Nationwide and in Wisconsin, the Black charge rate was far higher than any other type of racial discrimination, with a rate of about 466 federal complaints per 100,000 Black workers in Wisconsin.

Researchers say the majority of discriminatory behavior doesn’t result in federal complaints.

“The vast majority of experiences of workplace discrimination go unreported,” Carly McCann said. “Not very many people are utilizing their legal protections.”

McCann can’t comment on and doesn’t know the particulars of Cameron-Cuesta’s case, but she says that stories of retaliation after internal discrimination complaints is all too common, according to their research.

“Our reported research finds pretty high rates of employer retaliation,” she says, describing how many employees first seek internal remedies that are often followed by some form of employer retaliation–something against which they are legally protected.

In Cameron-Cuesta’s case, the investigation is ongoing and it won’t be clear yet what the results will be. But personally, she’s exhausted and frustrated with her experiences with her employer’s method of handling her initial discrimination grievances.

“It’s one-sided. It’s to protect upper management,” she said. “I’m disposable to them.”