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Lawsuit alleges racism, discrimination at San Diego Workforce Partnership

A former employee has filed a lawsuit against the nonprofit San Diego Workforce Partnership and its CEO, alleging race- and gender-based harassment, discrimination and retaliation, according to court documents.

Tabatha Gaines, who is Black, worked at the organization as director of people and culture from January 2021 to June 2022. Her lawsuit, filed in San Diego Superior Court last week, accuses CEO Peter Callstrom of showing favoritism to white male employees while sidelining Black and female employees and targeting them with "extreme micromanagement and harassment."

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"While Callstrom might either hire women and/or people of color, Callstrom would later target these employees while giving preferential treatment to white male, non-diverse employees," the complaint alleges.

The San Diego Workforce Partnership is a quasi-governmental nonprofit that administers a host of job training and placement programs throughout the county. It is overseen by two separate boards of directors: the Policy Board, which is composed of mostly elected officials, and the Workforce Development Board, which is appointed by the Policy Board and is made up of business, nonprofit and labor leaders.

The nonprofit sent KPBS an email saying it is aware of the lawsuit and has retained legal representation. It said the organization believes in the importance of creating a diverse and inclusive workforce and has a policy that prohibits discrimination, harassment and retaliation.

"The Workforce Partnership will not publicly litigate these allegations and looks forward to a full and fair opportunity to present the evidence in court," the email said. "Employees of the Workforce Partnership have a right to privacy in personnel matters and the Workforce Partnership will not comment on personnel matters."

Gaines’ attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

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The chronology of allegations in the complaint begins in the late summer of 2021 when a manager at San Diego Workforce Partnership sought Gaines' advice on how to improve the performance of a Black male employee. Gaines recommended the employee receive counseling and coaching, the lawsuit says, noting that other white male employees had demonstrated similar performance issues and had been treated similarly.

But in the complaint, Gaines states Callstrom was dead set on firing the employee.

"Callstrom insisted on managing the employee’s every move and continuing to set him up for failure," the lawsuit reads. "Callstrom’s tactics finally proved successful and in November 2021, the Black male employee was terminated."

The pattern of harassment and discrimination escalated in September 2021, the lawsuit says, when Gaines approached Callstrom regarding an internal survey that showed employees felt Black applicants were being excluded from a program administered by San Diego Workforce Partnership.

"Callstrom became agitated with (Gaines) and defensive claiming that (Gaines) was being accusatory," the lawsuit says. "(Gaines) explained that she was just bringing attention to the potential issue so it could be addressed. However, after this conversation, Callstrom’s treatment of (Gaines) dramatically changed."

The lawsuit says that in the following months, Callstrom removed Gaines from executive team meetings and a committee focused on diversity, equity and inclusion. He later forbade her from communicating with the executive leadership team without hearing from him first.

"Callstrom engaged in a pattern and practice of harassment and retaliation in the form of hyper-focused and relentless micro-management of (Gaines)," the lawsuit alleges.

In March 2022, Gaines says she filed an internal complaint alleging discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment, identifying Callstrom as the harasser. Gaines says she eventually lost faith in the internal investigation that followed and resigned in June 2022.

Gaines' lawsuit also alleges unlawful "constructive termination," which California defines as when an employer makes an employee's work environment so intolerable that they are effectively forced to resign.

The lawsuit states Callstrom was placed on a leave of absence on Nov. 22. According to his Linkedin profile, Callstrom has been CEO of the San Diego Workforce Partnership since July 2012. The organization's 2020 tax filings, the most recent records available, show he earned $237,277 in salary and $43,445 in benefits.

Records show the organization’s Policy Board met in closed session on Nov. 21, 2022 to discuss "significant exposure to litigation." The Workforce Development Board's executive committee held a similar meeting on Dec. 14.