Government Employees Labor Union Is Sued by Staffer Who Claims Lack of Diversity

The former communications officer for a government employees labor organization is suing her ex-employer, alleging she was fired in 2019 for speaking out about an alleged lack of diversity within the organization.

Erica Zeitlin’s Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit against American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 36 alleges wrongful termination, discrimination, harassment and retaliation. She seeks unspecified damages in the suit filed Tuesday. The West Hollywood Municipal Employees Union, which represents City Hall employees, is a member of AFSCME District 36.

An AFSCME 36 representative did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Zeitlin has worked in communications for more than 20 years, first as a reporter for newspapers including The Los Angeles Times and later as a communications specialist for political campaigns, nonprofits and unions, the suit states.

From 2011 until her 2019 firing, Zeitlin worked as a communications officer for the labor organization, which serves and is funded by about 60 autonomous local unions in Southern California, according to the suit.

Zeitlin, an “exemplary employee” throughout her time at AFSCME 36, also is the legal guardian of her stepdaughter,who has been diagnosed with autism and needs constant supervision, the suit states. Zeitlin’s colleagues were aware of her devotion to her stepdaughter and the constraints on her ability to work from the office and engage in extended travel, according to the suit.

Zeitlin’s stepdaughter is prone to “severe separation anxiety” due to her birth mother’s death, the suit states. Since Zeitlin began caring for the girl, she has “taken great pains to ensure that she would be a stable presence in her stepdaughter’s life,” according to the suit.

In 2018, the new Council 36 leadership, which included three white men, disapproved of Zeitlin’s devotion to her stepdaughter’s care and her advocacy on behalf of minority members of the council, the suit states.

At the end of 2017 and in early 2018, the longtime Council 36 president, Alice Goff, who is Black, and other senior executive leaders left the organization, the suit states. Then, in August 2018, Adam Acosta, one of the few Latino members in AFSCME 36 leadership, was fired after nearly a quarter of a century with the organization, the suit states.

Acosta, who has filed his own separate suit alleging that his termination was the product of anti-Latino discrimination at the executive board, maintains he was told an “ethnic cleansing” wasneeded at District Council 36, the Zeitlin suit states.

Zeitlin had worked closely with Acosta, knew of his dedication and questioned the logic of his firing, the suit states. She sent an email to AFSCME 36 leadership because she believed that from a public relations perspective, the organization now had “an optics problem.”

But the plaintiff’s legitimate concern about discrimination “was met with hateful vitriol,” the suit states.

Last September, Zeitlin arrived at work and was met by the executive director, who confiscated her computers and cell phone, ordered her to take everything out her office and told her she was being suspended indefinitely for “recent actions,” although he did not specify what those actions were, according to the suit.

The executive director and an administrative assistant stood guard over Zeitlin while she cleaned out her office for at least five hours, a “humiliating experience” for the plaintiff, the suit states.

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