People of color and Native Americans working at the Minnesota Department of Human Services are sometimes the targets of racial slurs and harassment, denied promotions and raises and are isolated without support from senior management, several current and former employees say.

The climate not only creates personal turmoil and career disruptions for those affected, but employees say their ideas to improve outreach and programs to better meet the needs of the state’s diverse communities are sometimes ignored.

“The atmosphere there is so blatantly racist,” said Shirley Cain, a Native American who left the DHS in June after six years. “They need to do something big to make that place fair for people.”

DHS, the state’s largest agency, employs 7,300 workers and serves more than 1.1 million Minnesotans with public health insurance programs, services for the elderly and people with disabilities, cash assistance and other social services.

At least 35% of its clients are people of color or Native American, while 80% of its workforce is white. More than 40% of new hires who are Native American or people of color leave within two years, according to DHS data obtained under a public records request.

Commissioner Jodi Harpstead, who was appointed to the department’s top job last year, said in a recent interview that she is aware of the concerns and is putting programs in place to make the DHS “an anti-racist organization.”

“Obviously, we have work to do,” she said. “Right now there is a very heightened sense of frustration. I get that.”

The atmosphere, described by some as toxic, prompted employees to reach out this year to legislators and Gov. Tim Walz’s office to intervene. Several say it is too risky to raise concerns internally because “they are at best ignored and at worst denigrated and accused of race baiting,” according to minutes of a June meeting of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees.

Earlier this year, Harpstead hired Karen McKinney, someone she worked with during her tenure at Lutheran Social Service, as chief equity officer to put together a departmentwide anti-racist plan. McKinney said the new program will depart from past efforts that focused on diversity or equity.

“This is different in that all those other efforts didn’t deal with racism,” she said. “If you want to get at the root of the cause you have to get at the racism,” McKinney said.

Gulaid case

The department’s strained relationships with employees of color have drawn strong reaction from outside the DHS.

Three months ago, five legislators and two community members sent a letter to the Walz administration calling for an investigation after the DHS eliminated the job of Anab Gulaid, a Somali-American.

A deputy assistant commissioner in the Community Supports Administration, Gulaid helped run a division that includes services for people with disabilities, the elderly, deaf and hard of hearing, as well as behavioral health programs.

But Gulaid’s role changed after Harpstead created a new deputy position in the division and hired a white man who took on most of Gulaid’s responsibilities. Both he and Harpstead served on the board of a disability services industry trade group before joining the DHS.

“The autonomy to do my job was impacted by the walls that they were putting in front of me with no explanation,” said Gulaid, who added that she wasn’t informed about the new deputy until after he had been hired.

“My agony was always trying to understand why, why are you trying to treat me differently?” she said.

As an appointee, Gulaid could be dismissed without cause. She said she thinks that she was forced out because of her efforts to hire more people with disabilities under the Connect 700 program created under former Gov. Mark Dayton.

“Ms. Gulaid was subjected to a slow orchestrated process of retaliation,” the legislators and community members said in their May 20 letter to Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan.

“Ms. Gulaid is the type of dedicated public servant needed for this position and her qualifications are evident,” the group said.

The administration’s response came from Harpstead, who noted that state law prohibited her from commenting on personnel matters.

“I can say generally that when an allegation is made we consider it carefully and follow-up as appropriate,” Harpstead said in her reply.

‘Toxic environment’

Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, said she has heard from DHS employees who describe what she calls a “toxic environment.”

“For 10 years we’ve been talking about the need to hire people of color and more importantly to retain people of color,” said Moran, one of the legislators who signed the letter to Walz and Flanagan. “People are still leaving and they are leaving for a reason.”

In February, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights reached a settlement with the DHS, which was found to have subjected a Black employee to “a race based hostile working environment.”

Acting on a complaint filed in 2017 by a 16-year employee at the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center, the agency agreed to pay $55,000 to a Black woman who had been called a “Black [expletive]” by co-workers. She was also singled out for her appearance and was reprimanded because someone complained about her earrings, according to a Human Rights document.

In the last fiscal year, employees of color and Indigenous workers are “more likely” to be targets of internal investigations, with 11% of them subjected to complaint investigations, according to the agency’s human resources tracking system.

Lack of promotional opportunities and career advancement was the primary reason people of color and Native Americans leave the agency, with 22% of them citing it compared with 13% of all departing employees. Retirements account for just 5% of the departures compared with 26% for all employees.

“I’ve never felt so belittled and made to feel so incompetent,” said Maisha Giles, an African-American employee who left the DHS in May after two years, after she was targeted with spurious complaints.

Giles was subjected to many investigations, she said, including one where an accuser tried to tie her to the $29 million the department overpaid to two Indian bands for opioid medication assisted treatment, an error that made headlines last year.

A Legislative Auditor investigation found that the overpayments began in 2014, years before Giles was hired as director of behavioral health, and that they continued undetected until last year.

Giles said she thinks she was targeted because she began outreach efforts to community organizations and nonprofits that typically weren’t awarded DHS grants and contracts, or didn’t know how to apply for them.

“I pushed a very strong equity agenda,” she said recently. “I was questioned every step along the way.” She added that she did not get support from senior leadership.

Giles said that she was left out of meetings, that critical information was withheld from her and that human resources failed to respond to several reports about racist behavior in her division, including racial slurs.

“DHS has failed to protect me as a woman of color,” Giles wrote Harpstead and other agency officials shortly before she left. “Further, their internal system to detect and address racial discrimination has proven to be inadequate and hostile toward people of color.”

Fear of backlash

Cain, who worked as a supervisor under Giles, was also subjected to harassment. Cain reported it to the human resources department but didn’t get help, according to Giles.

Cain said her first boss in a different department refused to give her a raise, despite praise for her work.

Although she always tried to speak up, she said, many just give up.

“If you are Native or another group you stay under the radar and lay low,” she said. “You don’t speak out because you know you will get the backlash.”

In a February letter to Flanagan, several Black women at the DHS asked for help. They said that the system rewards white leaders who claim to support equity but see ideas put forward by Black employees as threatening.

“Black leaders who challenge the system are perceived as aggressive, problematic, and ultimately pushed out,” they said.

Speaking for the Walz administration, the state’s chief inclusion officer said the state is taking action to “dismantle systems of racism and oppression” in its agencies and departments.

“We take allegations of racism and race-based discrimination very seriously, particularly in an agency that serves communities that have experienced historical inequities,” Chris Taylor said in a written statement.

Harpstead said change will take time.

“When I arrived at the department it was clear in talking to people … that we have work to do,” she said. “These things don’t happen overnight.”