Politics & Government

The State Worker: Harassment case raises questions about status of union activists on paid leave

Mechelle Sherles allegedly suffered an unwanted kiss from Rich Boyd during an SEIU Local 1000 bargaining session at the Holiday Inn in Sacramento three years ago. Boyd, on staff as the local’s bargaining director at the time, allegedly followed that up with sexually explicit text messages to Sherles, a Franchise Tax Board employee on leave at the time to serve on the union bargaining team.

Sherles sued. Her Sacramento Superior Court lawsuit notes that Boyd answered directly to Yvonne Walker, president of Local 1000 of the Service Employees International Union. Sherles told her about the alleged harassment, but, according to the complaint, Walker said she “was overseeing a multimillion-dollar organization and it was her job to protect the organization. She made no mention of protecting Sherles. ... ”

After unsuccessful attempts to resolve the matter internally – and physical and emotional mistreatment by union officials, Sherles contends – she sued Local 1000, Boyd and other union officials last year. The complaints included sexual harassment, employer retaliation, assault, battery and more.

Local 1000 didn’t respond to text, phone and email messages seeking comment. They did respond to the lawsuit with a novel argument: Sherles couldn’t sue Local 1000 for employer abuses because she wasn’t a union employee.

The defense goes to the nature of “union paid leave,” a contractual arrangement that allows a state employee to take time off to tend to union business. In exchange, the union reimburses the state for all of the employee’s pay and benefits. Sherles was on union-paid leave when Boyd allegedly harassed her.

Some state workers go on “UPL” for a few days or weeks. Others, like Walker, go on UPL for many years. The unions and departments keep the books, so it’s hard to get a big-picture view of how many employees are on union-paid leave. Still, it’s safe to say that Local 1000, which represents 95,000 employees and is three times larger than the next-largest state union, has more members on UPL than any other state-worker association.

Last month, Judge David I. Brown’s agreed with SEIU’s defense, despite a form signed by Walker showing that, for workers’ compensation purposes, Sherles was deemed to be a Local 1000 employee. Instead, the judge said, Sherles was a state employee on paid leave.

“If Local 1000 was not the plaintiff’s employer, it follows the individual defendants may not be held liable for harassment,” Brown wrote.

The decision firmly planted Sherles in legal no-man’s land. Although she worked at her union’s direction, on union business at the union’s expense, she had no employee shield from alleged predators and intimidation. Sherles says she believes in union protections, but she now wonders, “Who protects us from our union?”

Sherles still has a lawsuit against a few individuals. Her lawyer, Joel Rapaport, expects that case will go to trial next year.

Local 1000 will fund their defense.