Members and supporters of the pro-union group of dining hall employees Workers for Justice (WFJ) marched to Pomona Vice President and Treasurer Karen Sisson’s office Mar. 1 to voice their concern over the Feb. 18 firing of dining hall worker Emilio Flores Arellano.
“We have seen a lot this year, but only recently, a great injustice was done to our co-worker Emilio Flores who was fired recently,” workers wrote in a letter they gave to Sisson. “There was no investigation in which both workers and management had a voice.”
Arellano was fired following an investigation lasting two and a half weeks, according to Assistant Vice President of Facilities and Campus Services Bob Robinson. The investigation began after another employee brought an allegation against Arellano through dining hall services to the college’s Human Resources office.
Robinson said the college’s Human Resources staff consulted all parties involved before coming to a decision. He also explained that the administration could not comment on the details of the allegation due to legal restrictions.
“I am legally prohibited from [talking about the specifics of the incident], which is the hard part in all this…. I wish I could be more candid about it,” Robinson said.
Assistant Vice President of Human Resources Brenda Rushforth said she conducted the investigation. While Rushforth stressed that she could not talk about the specific investigation, citing legal restrictions, she explained that an investigation of this type would involve interviewing any eyewitnesses to the incident as well as the people directly involved and several levels of management. Rushforth also said that an outside legal counsel would most likely review the investigation.
Rushforth did mention that Wendy Gonzales, the school’s in-house English-Spanish translator, was present at all the meetings between the administration and Arellano. Gonzales declined to comment on the termination of employment.
“Any documentation that was handed to Emilio was also translated into Spanish,” she said.
Some workers, however, have expressed concerns over the way the investigation was conducted. Several hours after Arellano’s termination, seventeen workers, a number of students, and parents visiting during Family Weekend went to President David Oxtoby’s office to express their concern over the termination.
Oxtoby said that he was “disappointed” by the letter submitted to his office, which stated, “We understand that this is the policy that Pomona College has for the workers in its dining halls—we can be fired without cause.”
“Actually, this is certainly a case where there was cause,” Oxtoby said in response to the letter. “I think there’s a little bit of miscommunication.”
He added that WFJ probably was not aware of the full investigation that had been conducted, which could have contributed to their concerns.
“I told them that I would look into it, which I have, and I’ve verified that I think we followed all proper processes and that we made the right decision,” Oxtoby said.
Rolando Araiza, a dining hall chef and WFJ leader, objected to the way the investigation was handled.
“I don’t think there was a thorough investigation.… They just said they were going to ‘look into it,’” he said. “I don’t think they talked to anybody because usually when they do, a worker will say, ‘they asked me questions’ or ‘they want to find out what happened.’”
Araiza admitted that the college could have conducted interviews that he was unaware of but added that he felt that the investigative process was unfair.
“I don’t think it was right. I think [Arellano] didn’t get the right opportunity to tell his story,” he said. “If every worker is saying the same thing, that no one heard anything, no one got talked to, it brings me back to, ‘well, maybe it really didn’t happen.’”
Other dining hall employees echoed this sentiment.
“[We all] know that they never did [an investigation],” said a dining hall worker and WFJ member, who spoke under the condition of anonymity and in the presence of two WFJ student organizers. “To do an investigation, they would have to come talk to supervisors who are close to him. They never came to talk to anyone here about what he’s like.”
Rushforth refuted the suggestion that any potential eye witnesses were not contacted during the investigation.
“In this particular instance, if there were witnesses, they were interviewed,” she said. “If there’s witnesses who have seen, felt, heard, observed any of the sensory things that would possibly lead us to want to substantiate—or not—that claim, you always want to meet with those people.” Rushforth did note, however, that there are times in investigations when there are no witnesses to interview.
Sisson said she was informed that a proper investigation was conducted.
“I know multiple individuals were interviewed,” she said.
Sisson also explained that individuals who did not necessarily witness an incident can still provide information that might influence a termination decision.
“You may not have a direct witness, but you have behavior on the part of other employees that show knowledge of the incident because they’re referring to it in the workplace…. So it might not be that they actually witnessed an event or saw it, but that they’ve been told about this from other workers,” she said.
The letter given to Sisson and Oxtoby stated that “[Arellano] had given many years of service to this college; there was no other similar incident on his record and he was fired without being given a second chance.” Araiza reiterated this point.
“He was a hard-working guy.… He got along with everybody,” he said. “When you have someone like that, they just value their work a lot… they wouldn’t want to do anything to jeopardize it.”
Araiza claimed that while Arellano considered taking legal action after his termination, he is no longer planning to do so. According to Araiza, Arellano is only seeking to clear his name.
“He doesn’t want people to think he’s a bad person, because he wasn’t. He was a hard worker,” Araiza said.
Administrators emphasized that the school takes terminations very seriously.
“We understand the impact [firing an employee] has not only on the people involved, but on all parties who had any kind of hand in this,” Robinson said. “It’s something that we only entertain as a last resort. It’s not something that anyone wants to do.”
According to the administration, the firing of an employee is a very rare occurrence. Robinson did confirm, however, that there was “an employee who was ‘technically’ terminated during [his] two years here.”
Sisson added that she feels WFJ has repeatedly jumped to conclusions of wrong-doing by the administration whenever a decision of this magnitude is made.
“The theme that is concerning to me about WFJ responses is that there’s somehow this implication that we as an administration are just arbitrary and capricious when someone is terminated,” Sisson said. “There’s this immediate presumption that the administration has done something evil and wrong, when in fact, particularly given the scrutiny we’re under here… [and] given my personal ethics and the ethics of people who work for me, we’re just not going to do that.”
Jordan Cohen, Jessica Stoneman, and Janet Ma contributed reporting to this article.