‘I don’t participate in retaliatory practices:' Allentown mayor responds to backlash after firing employee
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk hit back Tuesday at accusations that his firing of a city employee was retaliation against her for lodging racism accusations against City Hall.
On Monday, Tuerk fired Karen Ocasio, a human resources worker who filed complaints against the city with Pennsylvania’s equal-employment opportunity and human relations commissions.
Tuerk’s termination letter to Ocasio did not specify a reason for her firing, which comes after she repeatedly urged council members to launch an investigation into workplace racism and discrimination.
But city Councilman Ed Zucal on Monday night labeled Ocasio’s firing “an act of revenge” and “blatant retaliation and retribution” by Tuerk.
“A few months ago, Mayor Tuerk stood before council and said he welcomed the investigation and scrutiny into his administration,” Zucal said. “Now, he’s firing one of the first employees courageous enough to speak out and before the investigation has even started.
“It’s clear the mayor welcomes neither transparency nor freedom to speak out in his administration,” Zucal said.
“As mayor, I have a duty to ensure a good working environment for all employees so that we may continue to provide high quality city services to our residents and stakeholders. I don’t participate in retaliatory practices and I don’t have tolerance for it either.”Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk
Tuerk released a short statement Tuesday afternoon, seemingly in response to Zucal’s comments.
“As mayor, I have a duty to ensure a good working environment for all employees so that we may continue to provide high quality city services to our residents and stakeholders,” Tuerk said. “I don’t participate in retaliatory practices and I don’t have tolerance for it either.”
Tuerk declined further comment on Ocasio’s firing, citing the administration’s policy of not speaking about personnel matters.
Council member Ce-Ce Gerlach said Monday she hopes the mayor’s firing of Ocasio wasn’t “a form of retaliation” for her complaints.
She and Zucal both said they worry Ocasio’s firing could open the city up to lawsuits.
'No one listened to me'
Ocasio has been outspoken at Allentown City Council meetings since July, when the NAACP Allentown Branch released a letter that included “a concerning number of complaints from Black and Brown employees" who work in City Hall.
Those included allegations that some white city police officers threatened to shoot their Black colleagues, who were targeted by racial slurs and “continuously threatened,” according to the letter.
Ocasio said in September that some coworkers told her, “Where the managers sit is the United States and where the administrators, back where I was, is Mexico.”
She also alleged she was taunted and moved out of her office without warning after returning from medical leave.
“All my complaints were ignored,” Ocasio said Sept. 6. “I went to the solicitor; I went to everybody. No one listened to me.”
Ocasio, who worked for Allentown for about five years, received an annual salary of about $63,000 as a benefits manager.
Potential no-confidence vote
Zucal said Tuerk’s firing of Ocasio could push him to call for a vote of no confidence “to signal the complete lack of faith that council now has in this mayor.”
“It’s a way of expressing that an organization has lost all respect and confidence in its leader or its leadership,” Zucal said.