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Senate staffer who won discrimination suit wants job back

Talonya Adams outside U.S. District Court in Phoenix on Oct. 16, 2019. (Photo by Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)

Talonya Adams outside U.S. District Court in Phoenix on Oct. 18, 2019. (Photo by Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)

A fired Senate staffer said Friday she hopes to go back to work even though it would mean working with – and for – some of the same people who a federal court jury said discriminated against her.

“Not only do I want my job back, I’m entitled to my job back,” Talonya Adams told Capitol Media Service. That relates to the fact that federal law allows someone who is found to have been the victim of illegal employment discrimination to be restored to the prior position, with no loss of pay or benefits.

A federal judge on Thursday ordered the Senate, where she had worked until 2015, to reinstate her no later than Oct. 31 “pursuant to terms negotiated by the parties.” That followed a unanimous jury verdict in July finding that her dismissal was not only unjustified but that she was the victim of discrimination and illegal retaliation for complaining.

Adams acknowledged that one option would be to negotiate some sort of severance deal, giving her money in lieu of going back to work at the place where she was fired and allowing her to take up her legal practice elsewhere. But she said that’s not what she wants to do.

“I have a love of public policy,” Adams said.

Adams also was critical of Senate President Karen Fann who late Thursday, after the reinstatement order was issued, said “something like this would be awkward in any circumstance.”

“I’m not sure what’s awkward about treating an African-American policy adviser with a law degree an international MBA that has been wrongfully discharged fairly, professionally, non-discriminatorily and in an equitable manner to her peers,” Adams said.

Fann, however, also said that, ultimately, it will be up to Adams.

“If that’s what she wants to do and that’s what we need to do, fine,” the Senate president said. “Or, if there’s another alternative, that’s OK, too.”

Not everyone who was there in 2015 and who Adams charged was culpable in her dismissal is still at the Senate. One of those is Katie Hobbs who, at the time, was the Senate minority leader.

“I do not question that she felt discriminated against,” Hobbs, now secretary of state, told Capitol Media Services in a separate interview. But Hobbs also said that when she was heading the Senate Democrats that no one was wrongly fired.

Adams said that’s no surprise.

“She testified at the trial, of course, and she’s made subsequent statements,” Adams said of Hobbs.

“She’s very proud of her decision and I suppose she stands by it.”

But Adams said that’s not what the jury concluded. More to the point, she said that stance is reflective of a larger issue.

“I find it unfortunate because that’s exactly why discrimination exists,” she said.

“It’s invisible, it’s intangible, it’s hard to quantify, ”Adams said. “Systematic racism is everywhere.”

Katie Hobbs

Katie Hobbs

And she took a swat at Hobbs for maintaining her position that her firing was justified, particularly in the face of a unanimous jury verdict saying she was entitled to $1 million.

“To have a sitting secretary of state state that there was no discrimination I think is disrespectful to our judicial system, to democracy,” Adams said.

“And it gives me grave concern about someone that sits at the helm and governs one of the most sacred rights to people of color,” she continued. “And that’s the right to vote.”

Hobbs is the state’s chief elections officer.

Adams is not going to get $1 million, with Judge Douglas Rayes saying federal law caps such awards at $300,000. But it was Rayes who in Thursday’s final judgment said she was entitled to some of the pay she missed – about $50,000 – and her job back.

In filing suit, Adams said she was paid less than her colleagues with similar experience. Hobbs, however, said that had nothing to do with sex or race.

“There is a problem, and it’s institutional, in the salary structure,” Hobbs said.

“Democratic staff get paid less than Republican staff,” she continued. “This has been an issue for a long time.

Hobbs said she worked during her four years as head of the Democrat caucus to create pay parity.

In the past year there have been adjustments. But Hobbs said those changes are not enough and that Democrat staffers generally are paid less than those for the Republican majority.

“That is still an ongoing issue, it is still something that’s being worked on,” she said.

Salary issues aside, Adams said – and jurors concluded – that she was discriminated against with respect to the amount of leave she was allowed to take. And they said she was fired for complaining about the discrimination.

Adams said the fact that she got the case into court and got that $1 million verdict, even though it was reduced by the judge, is an accomplishment in itself.

She said it is difficult to prove charges of racism, particularly in convincing jurors that the actions of the employer were intentional. In fact, Adams said, that’s why it’s difficult to find attorneys to pursue these cases and why Adams represented herself.

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