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Fired coal handler alleges Willmar Utilities discrimination

Nefi Ibarra, 31, of Willmar, a terminated coal handler at the Willmar power plant, shown above, is alleging he was the victim of employment discrimination by the Willmar Municipal Utilities because of his Mexican origin and his Mormon religion. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- A terminated coal handler is alleging he was the victim of employment discrimination by the Willmar Municipal Utilities because of his national origin and religion.

Besides claiming he was treated differently and less favorably because of his Mexican origin and his Mormon religion, Nefi Ibarra, 31, of Willmar says he was required to take the commercial driver's license exam to operate utility vehicles on unpaid time even though he was told by co-workers that other employees, including his supervisor, were paid on company time to take the exam.

Ibarra filed the discrimination charge on Jan. 26 with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Ibarra alleges the utility violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

Jason Kuboushek, a partner with Iverson Reuvers LLC of Bloomington, the law firm representing the utilities, said Tuesday he could not discuss or comment on the matter.

"We don't (have a comment) at this time. It's all non-public data,'' he said.

Kuboushek said federal law sets certain timeframes for the utility to respond, "but I don't believe even those are public data. I think everything regarding the notice is nonpublic data.'' He said the EEOC will conduct an investigation and will make a determination.

Ibarra and his wife, Michelle, told the Tribune about the discrimination charge and provided documents to the newspaper regarding the charge, along with correspondence and personal data they had requested from the utility.

Ibarra, who was hired July 11, 2011, says he was terminated without warning on Jan. 6, 2012, four days before his six-month probationary period was to expire and one week after he said he was told his performance was acceptable.

A Jan. 18, 2012, letter sent by Larry Heinen, Willmar Utilities interim co-manager, to Ibarra said the reason for Ibarra's termination was a failure to fulfill the expectations in performing the coal handler's job.

On the day he was fired, Ibarra said he thought that when he was called into the office, he would be invited to stay with the company.

" ... I loved my job at the utility and thought the supervisors (were) happy with my performance. I showed up on time every day, ready to work and always followed orders,'' he said.

"I really enjoyed working with the guys in the power plant. I felt like we worked hard together and always felt like we could count on one another. I will really miss working with them,'' he said.

"Unfortunately, my work ethic was not all that was being considered upon keeping me past my probation period,'' he said.

Ibarra said he did everything he could to prove his legal right to work for the utility.

"I am a legal resident of the United States of America and have a right to attend any church of my choosing. I am grateful for all the support from the Hispanic community. This is an unfortunate setback for our community as a whole.''

Ibarra disputes claims written by a supervisor after the supervisor conducted an oral evaluation with Ibarra on Dec. 29.

The supervisor wrote that he explained to Ibarra that not unloading four coal cars a day was unacceptable. Ibarra said he was never told about any requirement for unloading a certain number of coal cars per day.

"That is what we always got done. One week we received eight cars that were frozen, which we only did maybe two cars a day but that was only for that one week. We got all eight cars done by the end of that week. That was this winter when it started to get cold,'' Ibarra told the Tribune.

The supervisor wrote that he told Ibarra that frequent greasing of the tops of the elevators, which carry coal up into the silos, was critical. Ibarra told the Tribune he already knew that was important and that he did it.

The supervisor wrote about sending three maintenance workers one day to unload a car while Ibarra sat on the berm of the coal pile. The supervisor wrote that Ibarra "really didn't answer me on this.''

Ibarra told the Tribune, however, that he told the supervisor during the review that he had been sitting on the berm of the coal pile because he had slipped inside the car and injured his shin.

"I told him the reason why, because I had hurt my leg when I went into the coal car,'' Ibarra said.

He told the Tribune that the maintenance workers were not unloading coal but were getting ready to shut the car doors. While they were shutting the doors, Ibarra told the Tribune he saw an opportunity to check his leg.

He told the Tribune he did not report the injury because he was in his six-month probationary period and he didn't want to "make waves to make an excuse for them not to hire me.''

However, Ibarra said he showed the injury to a co-worker at the end of the shift and he took a picture of the injury with his cell phone.

The supervisor also wrote that "there is no working together'' by Ibarra and another coal handler and that they only followed orders until the supervisor had gone.

Ibarra said that he and the worker got along just fine. "We always communicated with each other. We never had a problem with each other. We always got our job done.''

Ibarra said his documentation was questioned on more than one occasion, but that General Manager Bruce Gomm reviewed his Social Security card and said the documentation was valid.

Also, Ibarra said he was asked how he knew Gomm and that he answered "we attend the same church" -- the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Willmar.

Before he knew it, Ibarra said, it was rumored that that was why he got the job.

Gomm, who is on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of a disciplinary investigation of him, was asked by Commissioner Dave Baker during a closed commission meeting on Oct. 11 about the coal handler position.

Gomm authorized the West Central Tribune to listen to audio recordings of the Oct. 11 closed meeting and a Dec. 12 closed meeting. Because Gomm's personnel data was the subject of the closed meeting, he may authorize its release.

During the Oct. 11 meeting, which Baker requested to discuss personnel data, Baker discussed with Gomm that there had been some disagreement about the hiring of the coal handler.

"The issue on the table is ... your decision to hire a coal handler that I believe you had personal acquaintance or friendship of prior to the hire. Is that correct?'' Baker asked Gomm.

Gomm told Baker he determined the minority candidate was the most qualified. Gomm said he was delegated authority by the commission for the hiring of that position "and (I) prevented the utility and the city from being exposed to liability.''

In a Dec. 13 interview with the Tribune, Gomm explained the hiring decision and discussed the rumors about him hiring members of his church.

Gomm said his wife and Michelle Ibarra had had some contact, "but I didn't know anything about that person.''

Gomm said Ibarra "was a member of the Mormon Church even though he was totally inactive. He wasn't attending, but (the hiring process has) been twisted to say that I am only hiring Mormon applicants now. That's just completely false and completely unfair accusation.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150