David Johnson started working as a contractor on a project helping Novant Health transition over to the EPIC medical records system in the Charlotte area in March 2013.
The contracting gig turned into a job offer from the Winston-Salem-based non-profit hospital system for a position as an end-user computing analyst — a tech who provides desktop support — in July 2014. Johnson’s supervisor was part of the management team that brought him on board, and the two got along well at first. But Johnson, who is Black, noticed that his supervisor, who is white, treated him differently when he discovered he was in a relationship with a white woman, who is now his wife.
Five years later, Johnson would find himself out of a job and without access to healthcare because of a firing that followed a pattern of racially-motivated harassment.
Over the course of his five years as an employee at Novant Health, Johnson, who goes by the nickname “DJ,” said he endured cursing and physical intimidation from a white coworker, with management complicity. He said he came to work to find his family photos turned upside down, and one day someone had spit mucus in a Tupperware container of spaghetti that he had brought from home and left in a refrigerator at work. Johnson, who is from Michigan, said his supervisor told him he was “tired of my Black ass and my Detroit bullshit.”
Then, in July 2019, Johnson said the supervisor invited him in for a meeting ostensibly to resolve personal differences and improve their working relationship. The meeting would later be called a “Coaching and Counseling” session to lay the groundwork for his termination. Johnson contends that among 52 end-user computing analysts employed by Novant Health, he was the only one terminated during the reduction in force, and that the organization was already internally advertising the same position at a hospital less than 40 miles away in Salisbury at the same time. Johnson also says Novant had hired five new end-user computing analysts, none of whom were Black, in the month before his termination.
According to Johnson’s account, provided to Queen City Nerve over the course of a two-hour interview, his supervisor appeared to be casting about for pretexts to get rid of him. Although it wasn’t ultimately cited in the short meeting when his supervisor and a human resources representative informed him of his termination, Johnson said there was nothing about his performance that would have supported the decision.
“I never missed a raise; I never missed a bonus,” said Johnson, who is now 49. “I never had a write-up before that. I’d never been spoken to about attendance. I never missed work except when I was on medical leave and I had prostate cancer. I was dedicated to that company; I was looking to retire from there.”
Johnson isn’t the only one to report racial harassment at Novant Health
Johnson’s racial discrimination claim against Novant Health dovetails with an account by Karen Obas, an insurance specialist in the patient financial services department in Winston-Salem, who filed a charge of retaliation with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Obas, who is white, has said she was subjected to arbitrary discipline after she reported that in January 2018 her white manager told a Black coworker: “If you don’t stop, you’re going to get lynched. And I’m going to be there. And I’m going to say, ‘I tried to warn you.’”
In October 2019, when Obas went public with her story, she didn’t know about Johnson, the tech support employee who had been fired a month earlier. But she asked: “Who else are they treating like this? Who else has reported things and not had the wherewithal [to pursue legal redress]?… I have a son to take care of. We all have kids to take care of. We all have lives to live. We don’t need to be in an environment where we are insulted on a daily basis. So, it’s what’s happened, and the aftermath, and the overall environment that just makes this whole picture really disgusting.”
Novant, like virtually every other large organization, scrambled to declare its commitment to diversity and inclusion as protests swept the nation following the death of George Floyd.
A YouTube video posted by Novant Health on June 3 features somber piano music with text scrolling starkly across a black backdrop: “We exist to save lives, all lives. We believe black lives matter. In the midst of a pandemic, the epidemic of racism has once again shaken us all. We call for empathy, compassion and zero tolerance of racism from all. We heal bodies every day. But we know only through social justice can we heal the soul of our community. Because if society isn’t healthy, no one is healthy.”
Johnson, who lives in Huntersville — a northern suburb of Charlotte in Mecklenburg County — said the healthcare conglomerate’s public declaration rings false considering his experience on the job.
“I’m tired of seeing the way they preach diversity and inclusion and all this stuff, but they don’t practice it,” he said.
Through a spokesperson, Novant Health declined to comment on the specifics of Johnson’s claim, citing a corporate policy of not releasing information about current or former employees. But the spokesperson provided a general statement that echoed its earlier public response to Obas’ claims: “We thoroughly investigate any claims of discrimination or harassment. To help ensure team members feel safe to report any concerns, we have an anonymous alert line and strong anti-retaliation policies in place. Diversity and inclusion is core to who we are, and we pride ourselves on providing a safe, inclusive workplace for our team members.”
Johnson describes a toxic environment
In early 2015, David Johnson was out on medical leave to have his prostate removed. His supervisor talked on the phone with his fiancée — now his wife — and apparently determined from her voice that she was white.
Upon his return to work, Johnson said he was taken aback when his supervisor asked him if his partner was white, and how they met in Detroit, where Johnson grew up.
There were early signs that the working relationship was on unsteady footing. Once, his supervisor called him in and said he had three complaints against him. The first, Johnson said, involved a work order to replace a computer hard drive. David said he wasn’t able to finish the job before the end of his shift, so he transferred the ticket to another tech, and emailed the worker to let her know that her computer would not be ready until the following day. Johnson said the worker’s manager emailed him on his day off to ask why the computer wasn’t ready, then apparently complained to his supervisor. Johnson said he was perplexed that the work order became an issue because his supervisor knew his schedule and would have known that it was his day off. During the meeting, Johnson said, his supervisor seemed satisfied with his explanation, then told him to forget the other two purported complaints.
Hoping to smooth over their difficulties, Johnson said he decided in January 2017 that he would invite his supervisor to his wedding. When told that the wedding would take place in Turks and Caicos, Johnson said his supervisor responded with astonishment and said it wasn’t in his budget to travel there.
“He was wondering how we could afford to have our wedding in the Caribbean,” Johnson recalled. At that point, Johnson said, he had been shuttling between the hospital in Huntersville and the one in Matthews, at the southeastern end of Mecklenburg County. But four weeks after the conversation about Turks and Caicos, Johnson said he was transferred to the Novant’s main hospital in Charlotte to eliminate overtime and mileage reimbursements. Johnson said he didn’t mind, but he also took it as a signal that his supervisor didn’t think he should be making enough money to afford a Caribbean wedding.
An altercation nearly turns violent
The real trouble emerged in April 2017, when a white coworker cursed Johnson out during a dispute over which of them should be working on a queue for troubleshooting requests. As detailed in a written complaint Johnson filed against the coworker to Novant Health, he received a phone call from his supervisor at 8:17 a.m. that day informing him that the coworker had complained about Johnson taking over the queue. Johnson said his supervisor suggested that he talk to his coworker to figure out why he had a problem with him. Johnson said he reluctantly did so, but only after another coworker came on for the night shift so he would have a witness.
“What’s your beef with me, man?” Johnson said to his coworker, as recounted in his complaint. “I don’t understand.”
What followed, he said, was a profanity-laden tirade that incorporated multiple uses of the word “fuck” in various configurations, and the white coworker moving into his personal space in a manner that seemed intended to physically intimidate him. The other coworker stepped between them, Johnson said, and they left the building. Johnson recounted in the complaint that the other coworker shared with him then that the hostile coworker had “mentioned that he wanted to transfer tickets to my queue in assigned status on my day off, so the tickets would breach. The action could cause me to be written up.”
Johnson told Queen City Nerve that when he mentioned the altercation to his supervisor, he was assured that the coworker would be fired.
“I didn’t hear anything about it from management until two weeks later,” Johnson said. “They told me they were not trying to fire anybody during that time. It was crazy. I didn’t believe it. It was like, ‘We need to get you guys together and figure something out.’ I was like, ‘Look, he totally disrespected me. He totally violated Novant’s policy. Why must I work with him? I’m not talking to this guy.’”
Johnson said he doubts that his coworker even received discipline considering that his behavior remained unchanged; passing in the hallway, the coworker would move close to Johnson, as if he was trying to get Johnson to accidentally bump into him.
“That showed me that my supervisor was involved in that, with him telling me to talk to this guy,” Johnson said. “You should have fired him, but he’s still going to act like that?”
Food spitting, intimidation make things unbearable
While he was forced to deal with his coworker’s unchecked hostility, Johnson said his supervisor’s attitude towards him became increasingly disrespectful. On his flight home from their wedding, Johnson and his wife had been stranded in Aruba because the Venezuelan government had closed the airspace on their flight path, and Johnson called his supervisor to let him know in case he wasn’t sure he would be able to make it back in time for his next scheduled shift. During a company banquet in January 2018, Johnson felt that his supervisor brought up the episode to humiliate him in front of his wife and coworkers.
“He touched me on the forearm and turned to his wife and said, ‘These are the assholes that notified me that they were stranded in Aruba,’” Johnson recounted.
It was the first time his wife had met his supervisor, Johnson said, and she was furious.
Other incidents followed.
“I have pictures of my family on my desk — they’re flipped upside down,” Johnson recalled. “At one point — it was like close to me getting let go, in March or April 2019, somebody even spat in my food. I opened some spaghetti. I see a loogie in my spaghetti.”
A couple months later, Johnson would make an accidental discovery that brought the simmering tension between him and his supervisor to a boil. He was on paid time off and moving his family into a new house, and he went back to the office to retrieve $50 that he had stashed in his desk. When he arrived, he found one of his coworkers in his office. The coworker looked up with a startled expression and hastily left. Johnson said he discovered his money was gone and texted his supervisor to report it.
In a phone text Johnson provided to Queen City Nerve, his supervisor responded that he sent the coworker to Johnson’s office.
“He did not steal your money and he was there under my direction,” the supervisor wrote. “He also mentioned that you were quite rude about him being there, which is unacceptable. I will set up a meeting for us to chat one day next week, as I have some other concerns to discuss with you.”
Johnson said he wanted to find out right away what his supervisor’s concerns were because he didn’t think it was fair for him to have to spend the rest of his time off worrying about whether his job was in jeopardy. So, he went above his supervisor and called the IT manager, asking him to pass along his concern.
“My phone rung, and it was my supervisor,” Johnson recalled. “He said, ‘I guess I have to call you.’ He cussed me out and said he’s tired of my Black ass and my Detroit bullshit.”
The next message from his supervisor was contrite.
“I also want to talk next week if possible,” the supervisor texted. “I think we have lost something in our work relationship, and I want to understand what that is and how to get past it. I know I have been different towards you, and I am sorry for that.”
After the meeting, which was amicable, Johnson said he received an email from his supervisor that memorialized the meeting. Johnson was concerned, and let his supervisor know.
“I told him he didn’t tell me this was a documented discussion, and some of the stuff he mentioned in the [performance] overview was not discussed,” Johnson recalled. “He didn’t answer. I texted him … At the time, he said he had people over and would give me a call later. He said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not a write-up.’”
But Johnson knew a companywide reduction in force was coming, and the reference to “performance” in the email put him on edge.
‘A death ticket’
Johnson has diabetes and he lost his health insurance when Novant fired him.
“When they let me go, knowing my health conditions, I kind of took it as a death ticket, really,” he said.
He’s gotten some work as a contractor, but paying for health insurance would eat up half his earnings, he said. As a result, he’s skipped doctor’s visits and let his medication lapse.
“Either we’re on the street and I’m healthy, or I’m home and I’m sick,” Johnson said. “Of course, with financial strains come quarrels with your spouse. It’s caused us to bump heads on more than a few occasions. But we’re together, and we’re committed to each other and making sure this doesn’t affect our marriage. We’re going to work through this.”
After going public with her experience in October 2019, Karen Obas quit her job as an insurance specialist at the end of February. After Triad City Beat wrote about her ordeal, she said her managers repeatedly took away assignments, and it was clear she would never be promoted or transferred. Although she said she doesn’t regret resigning, she had no way to know what was around the corner.
“COVID-19 made it very hard,” she said. “It made it easy to feel defeated from a lot of angles, but I think this experience overall has given me even more resiliency than I had before and more determination to do what’s right regardless of the consequences. I’m hurting financially. I’m not okay, by any means…. I’m very proud of the fact that I have not let [Novant] pay for my silence.”
No potential for relief
On Feb. 11, Johnson received a notification from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission finding that the agency “is unable to conclude that the information obtained establishes violations” of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by Novant Health. The notification is generally known in the legal profession as a “right to sue” letter; the federal agency rarely actively litigates cases, and the notification essentially clears a procedural hurdle for complainants to file a private lawsuit.
The “right to sue” letter gave Johnson 90 days to file suit against Novant under Title VII. Eight days before the deadline, Alex Kelly, Johnson’s lawyer, received a settlement offer of $1,000 from Novant’s lawyer. David E. Stevens of the Johnston Allison Hord law firm said he was responding to an offer from Johnson’s lawyer to reduce the settlement demand to $6,664.91, which was the amount Johnson was offered as severance in July 2019.
“Mr. Johnson rejected the severance package and decided to submit meritless claims against Novant in a misguided attempt to extract additional money beyond what was offered to him,” Stevens wrote. “As a result of his actions, Novant needlessly expended time and money defending Mr. Johnson’s claims. He needs to accept responsibility for the path he chose and understand that Novant will not simply give him a ‘do-over.’”
The deadline for Johnson to file suit under Title VII came and went on May 20. Like Obas, Johnson was deterred by the cost of the $400 filing fee and the unforeseen expenses of hiring a lawyer to handle a lengthy discovery process leading up to trial. But under Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the two former employees have a four-year statute of limitations, so their legal options are still open. When asked whether they intend to sue Novant Health under Section 1981, both Johnson and Obas declined to comment.
In early July, Johnson contacted Obas. What she heard from him sounded sadly familiar.
“I wasn’t surprised at all, because of the many stories I’ve heard since last October on the comments directly from the [TCB] article and people who have reached out to me.” Obas said. “It’s clear that no matter what department in this organization, they have ways of covering up what they do. I think I felt really bad for him the same way I felt bad for everybody who told me their story. An organization has too much power when so many people are hurt by it and unable to truly defend themselves.”