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Employees allege racism, sexism, abuse of taxpayer dollars at San Diego Workforce Partnership

Andrew Bowen
/
KPBS
The sign for the San Diego Workforce Partnership offices is seen here, Dec. 27, 2022.

In a scathing letter sent to the San Diego Workforce Partnership governing board, a dozen of the nonprofit’s staffers allege CEO Peter Callstrom routinely engaged in racist and sexist employment practices and has used taxpayer dollars as hush money to prevent former employees from speaking about his behavior.

The letter says for nearly a decade, Callstrom has fostered "a toxic work environment" that has "ventured into race-based and sex-based discrimination against employees." It makes specific mention of a sexual assault of an employee by a supervisor and says Callstrom’s “mismanagement” allowed it to happen.

"We further believe Mr. Callstrom has abused public funds, has hid information from government controls (including from you), and has violated the public's right to attend and participate in the meetings of governing bodies of public agencies," states the letter, which was sent Nov. 15 and obtained by KPBS through a California Public Records Act request. “We worry this conduct has exposed the public trust to unnecessary risk."

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Among those receiving the letter were San Diego City Council members Sean Elo-Rivera and Monica Montgomery Steppe, San Diego County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer and Nancy Sasaki, CEO of United Way of San Diego County. All four board members were either unavailable or declined to comment on the allegations.

The letter was sent anonymously, with the authors agreeing to reveal their identities to board members upon assurance of protection from retaliation. A spokesperson for Sasaki said the county government had retained the Adams Law Group to conduct an investigation into the letter’s claims.

KPBS attempted to reach Callstrom for comment. His lawyer, Christina Giorgio, emailed the following statement:

"Peter Callstrom has dedicated his 30+ year human services career to serving underserved and underrepresented job seekers, addressing systemic racism, gender inequality, disability rights and people experiencing homelessness.  Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging have been central to his more than 10 years as SDWP’s CEO. With his team, SDWP has become a leading workforce development nonprofit that has increased the economic mobility and job readiness for tens of thousands of San Diegans. Mr. Callstrom was unaware of these anonymous allegations. He is confident that, if looked into, they would be found to lack merit. He looks forward to continuing his service to San Diego."

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Questionable severance packages

The Workforce Partnership is a quasi-governmental nonprofit that runs job training and placement programs, many of which are funded with taxpayer dollars. The letter states some staffers were asked to use public funds for generous severance packages to outgoing employees who had confronted Callstrom about his behavior.

“Some of us are aware of restrictive nondisclosure agreements attached to abnormal severance payments to former leadership team members and executives who voiced concerns to Mr. Callstrom about his conduct and/or the conduct he permits from other leaders and executives, including after claims of race-based and sex-based discrimination have been made,” the letter says. “We are aware of these agreements and payments in part because some of us have been asked to help find public funds which can be used to pay for these severance packages.”

The letter echoes many of the claims made in a lawsuit filed this month by former HR employee Tabatha Gaines, who is suing Callstrom and the Workforce Partnership for harassment, discrimination, retaliation and unlawful termination.

Tabatha Gaines lawsuit
Tabatha Gaines' lawsuit against Peter Callstrom and San Diego Workforce Partnership
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

Gaines claims Callstrom routinely promoted white men while sidelining women and people of color, and that he waged a campaign of "relentless micro-management" against her after she raised concerns about Black applicants being excluded from a Workforce Partnership program.

The employees' letter states, “Mr. Callstrom regularly singles out employees who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC) to dismiss or harass until they depart.” It goes on to say Callstrom “strategically sets BIPOC employees up for failure, convincing these employees that they do not have necessary skills for their roles and/or that they are incapable of doing a job.”

The letter also calls on the board to investigate the use of severance payments tied to nondisclosure agreements and to release former executives and staff from those agreements so they can speak freely about their experiences with Callstrom.

Regarding the sexual assault allegation, the letter alleges Callstrom knew, or should have known, about the supervisor's prior inappropriate behavior including sexual harassment and arriving to work under the influence of drugs. The supervisor was ultimately fired, the letter states.

Six days after the letter was sent, the governing board met in closed session to discuss “significant exposure to litigation.” The following day, Callstrom was placed on a leave of absence, according to Gaines’ lawsuit.

The Workforce Partnership is overseen by two separate boards of directors. In addition to the governing board, which includes the city council members and county supervisor, there is a Workforce Development Board, which is made up of business, nonprofit and labor leaders.

Callstrom has led the Workforce Partnership since 2012, according to his LinkedIn profile. He also serves on the San Diego Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention and the boards of several organizations including the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation and National University's College of Professional Studies.

The letter states that staff have attempted to raise their concerns about Callstrom with executives, HR leaders, finance leaders and outside consultants. However, "in every case (1) the feedback has been disregarded or kept secret and/or (2) the leaders and consultants receiving the information have ended their relationships with the organization under abrupt or suspicious circumstances."

The letter urges the board members to “take swift action to protect us, the people we lead, and the communities you represent from Mr. Callstrom." If that action isn’t taken, the letter says, “we believe Mr. Callstrom’s conduct may continue in a manner that exposes the public trust to unnecessary legal risk and may cost taxpayers untold sums of money — at a time when your constituents need every dollar of support they can get."