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Center for disabled hit with discrimination suit; Black workers allege bias at the Providence Center


A group of former and current employees has charged a prestigious Anne Arundel County organization that provides work and job training for disabled adults with discriminating against its black workers.

Helped by the Anne Arundel chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, seven blacks filed suit against the Providence Center in U.S. District Court in Baltimore yesterday, with hopes of turning it into a class-action suit that could affect more than 100 employees of the Arnold-based agency.

"They are a wonderful organization in everyone's eyes except the black employees," Donald F. Chiarello, attorney for the plaintiffs, said of the 37-year-old organization, which is devoted to helping a group of people left behind by society.

The organization employs and trains about 500 mentally and physically disabled adults at nine locations around the county and this year has a $7.1 million budget. Its much-praised programs include vocational and artistic training, sheltered and other supported employment, and job training and placement services.

Charles E. Coble, Providence Center's director, said he had not seen the lawsuit and did not want to comment on the allegations.

"We want to resolve this as quickly as possible. We are waiting to see the lawsuit," he said.

Gerald Stansbury, president of the local NAACP branch, said he tried to intervene some time ago, after Providence Center employees sought his help. He met with Providence Center officials, but the responses from Coble were "not satisfactory," he said. Coble said he communicated with Stansbury more than a year ago but did not know whether it was about the same or similar issues.

The lawsuit claims black employees have been discriminated against in hiring, firing, promotion, assignments, wages, benefits and other ways. The plaintiffs plan to hold a news conference this morning in Severna Park and would not detail allegations beyond what was in the 23-page suit.

"The only thing I can say to you is that they are wonderful -- it is a wonderful organization. However, the way they treat their employees, it's a different outlook," said Janet Pack of Glen Burnie, a Providence Center driver and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

"I have no problem with the clients. It's strictly administration. I can't say enough about the clients. I enjoy working with them very, very much," she said.

Pack alleges in the suit that white drivers get relief in dealing with violent clients but that her request for help with a client who threatened to hit her went unheeded. The more difficult clients are assigned to black drivers, the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit does not say when the alleged discriminatory incidents occurred, but it describes them as part of a pattern. It alleges that a black employee was fired for kissing a client but that a white employee was not fired for sexually fondling one; that black workers are denied keys to center buildings while white workers are given keys; and that less-qualified white employees are promoted over their black counterparts.

Providence Center board members met yesterday to discuss the complaint.

The organization's past boards have included prominent business people, politicians and lawyers, among them Democratic Del. Mary Anne Love of Glen Burnie; real estate consultant Gene Floyd of Severna Park; and board President Weymouth Spence, chairman of the Allied Health Division at Anne Arundel Community College.

Some items made by Providence Center clients are available nationally. The Yield House Furniture Makers' catalog offered pinewood toys, a yellow bus, a red car and a white rabbit on wheels. Its Thomas Point Light Birdhouse was offered on the QVC cable television shopping network.

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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