In the same week that George Floyd was killed, a cake decorated with a Black penis on it showed up in the conference room at the Macomb County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Not only was the cake offensive, says one investigator, but it highlighted a chronic problem at the morgue that has now cost three employees their jobs.
Exterior of the Macomb County Medical Examiner’s offices in Mt. Clemens. (Photo: Detroit Free Press)
The Macomb County morgue is buried in scandal involving allegations of all sorts: Employees mocked Blacks inquiring about loved ones’ deaths, hung pornography in the office, bullied women who complained and recently brought in a birthday cake frosted with male genitalia art for fun, according to a formal complaint.
It was that cake that pushed one employee too far — so she filed the complaint with the federal government.
In a workplace dispute that is now in the hands of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, three female employees with the Medical Examiner’s office were fired last week for alleged workplace misbehavior that one worker says went on for at least five years.
That employee — a death investigator and person of color — said she long wanted to report the offensive behavior, but feared retaliation so she stayed quiet.
Then the graphic cake arrived.
“I was livid — furious actually,” the woman said in a recent interview with the Free Press. “All these cities are on fire for the Black Lives Matter movement, and here’s my staff eating a black penis cake as a joke? That really pushed me over the edge.”
So she filed a complaint with the EEOC and Macomb County.
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“There has been an ongoing hostile work environment within the Medical Examiner’s Office since I have been here,” the July 18 complaint states. “The office culture is tainted with racism toward people of color. This was not only ignored by managing personnel, but participated in by the supervising staff.”
Three female morgue employees were fired Thursday following a due-process hearing, according to county officials. A fourth employee remains on paid administrative leave as investigators continue to question former employees about allegations involving racist and sexist behavior in the office.
“We don’t want anyone working in a place that’s unwelcoming, unsafe and not inclusive,” said Macomb County Human Resources Director Andrew McKinnon. “We’re supposed to set an example. When we hear these types of allegations, we take them seriously and we take quick action.”
This is the second EEOC complaint to be filed against the Macomb County morgue in recent years. Another one alleging similar claims was filed in 2016 and is still pending.
According to McKinnon, the current investigation does not involve chief Medical Examiner Dr. Daniel Spitz, who is a contract employee with the county. Spitz declined comment.
McKinnon said that the three terminated employees were let go for being part of a sexual discriminatory workplace, not for racism, and that investigators have not been able to substantiate any allegations involving racism.
The death investigator tells a different story.
‘Go deal with your people’
According to the complainant, there have been “blatant and overt racist communications” among a supervisor and other employees who are all part of the same office clique.
The death investigator says that over the years, she has heard multiple racist and insensitive comments from staff when dealing with African American families who have come to the morgue to inquire about their loved ones.
“Are they a black family?” was a question she often heard when dealing with upset families, she said.
The Free Press has agreed to withhold the employee’s name at this time because of the nature of the complaint and her concerns about retaliation.
Among her allegations:
- A decomposed body of an African American male had arrived at the morgue. When the parents arrived, they had difficulty identifying the body, unsure that it was their son. The death investigator recalled one of the morgue workers telling her: “Show them a picture of his penis. Maybe they’ll recognize him by that.”
- Recently, a distraught family appeared at the morgue and damaged some doors. When the investigator called 911 and a supervisor to report the incident, the supervisor “later called back and said, ‘Are they black? … They can break the doors and nothing will happen to them with everything going on, because they are black. They’ll just say they were upset,’ ” states the complaint.
- The death investigator says that she has often been given the responsibility of identifying the bodies of African Americans whose families have been considered “hostile” or “difficult” by office staff. When those families show up at the morgue, she says, “I have been told, ‘Go deal with your people,’ ”
“I find this conduct and these statements offensive and appalling,” states the complaint, which also alleges numerous sexual harassment incidents.
Over the last five years, the death investigator says she’s been forced to work in a cliquey environment where sex is often joked about, especially male genitalia.
Penis screen savers. Sticky notes with genitalia scrawled on them. Printed images of naked men and penis-shaped confetti scattered on desks, counters and the floor. All of this was part of the office decor, her complaint alleges.
People complained, she claims. But nothing was ever done, not even after another person filed a sexual harassment complaint against the Macomb County morgue with the EEOC in 2016, alleging a hostile work environment. That employee was fired after filing her EEOC complaint, which is still pending.
The EEOC does not comment on investigations.
” I have witnessed prior employees resign due to constant bullying and ridicule for ‘not being onboard’ with the office culture,” the new complaint states.
And things have gotten worse, says the death investigator, alleging: “Within the past two years, the hostile work environment has progressively worsened and the harassment has amplified.”
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A distasteful cake
The complainant says she endured as much as she could until May of this year.
On May 26 — the day after George Floyd died while being arrested in Minneapolis, inflaming the nation — a staff member who was not on duty brought in a medium-sized sheet cake that had been decorated with a black penis. The cake was taken into the conference area, which also served as the office lunch room, where it was shared by morgue workers and supervisors.
After lunch, the partially eaten cake was left on the counter.
The next day, the cake was still there and the complainant asked a supervisor if the cake was really decorated with a black penis.
“Yes,” the supervisor replied.
The death investigator asked why that was permitted, but got no response.
The next day, the person who made the cake approached the investigator, asking, “Did you try my cake?”
The investigator responded no, then asked if she herself had frosted the cake with a black penis.
“She began to laugh and stated, ‘Yes, I did,’ ” the complaint states.
The investigator was not amused.
“‘That cake is disgusting,” she said she told her. “No, I did not have any of it.”
Later that day, the investigator went to the conference room and saw the cake was still on the counter, covered by a brown paper towel. She said she heard a secretary ask a supervisor about the cake: “Is that really a black penis cake in the conference room? … That is not funny.”
The next day, four days after the cake arrived at the office, it was still there, along with a balloon on a coworker’s desk that had a penis hand-drawn onto it with a black magic marker. The balloon was there for three days.
During the cake incident, multiple employees complained, but nothing happened, the complaint alleges. Rather, more sexual images turned up in the office, including a photo of a male’s groin area in a tight bathing suit.
The death investigator says multiple people have complained about the “unprofessional decorum” in the past, but to no avail. They’re either “viciously harassed,” she alleges, or bullied into resigning.
“I have witnessed co-workers crying at their desks, crying in the parking lot, and crying in the bathroom of the building,” her complaint states.
Prior to filing a complaint, the investigator said, she tried to minimize her exposure to the harassment and hostility in the office. She switched to the night shift for awhile. She moved her desk and volunteered to work weekends to avoid contact with the employees.
The investigator noted that she did question herself before coming forward. Was she whining, overly sensitive?
But when she thought about the cake, her blood boiled.
“I was like, ‘this is never gonna change,’ so I filed a complaint with the EEOC and with HR,” she told the Free Press. “I felt that it was so egregious, so out of line and so brazenly conducted on a daily basis — and nobody cared.”
Tresa Baldas: email@example.com
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