'Limping for sympathy'

Accused of uncharitable acts of discrimination, a troubled Millionair Club pays off ex-workers.

At the street level, it seems to be business as usual. "I've been coming here off and on for years," said a neatly attired man named Charlie, waiting to sign up for work inside the Millionair Club's double doors the other morning. "You can always get a job, and the [staff] people are great here."

Thanks to its noble legacy of public assistance, the 78-year-old Seattle charity has earned a benevolent and enduring image among city relief agencies. Nondiscriminating and nonprofit, the Millionair Club provides jobs, meals, and clothing to the poor and homeless who line up at its historic old hall and headquarters on Western Avenue or who shop at the Club's Belltown thrift store.

But behind the scenes, critics say, is a contrary image: an executive director who is accused of bullying employees and wresting power from career human-services workers, replacing them with a young female staff and a corporate bureaucracy—all with uncharitable results.

"At the secondhand store it got so there was nothing but trash to wear and prices were so high homeless people couldn't afford to buy anything," says Joan Vallery, both an ex-client and ex-employee of the Club. "So my sister and I bypassed the store and gave our donations to people out of the trunk of the car."

The Club's former no. 2 person in charge, Betty Johnson, says changes at the Club have left her shaking her head. "It's simply distressing," opines Johnson, a social-services professional for 19 years, "and the opposite of what the Millionair Club stood for."

Johnson and Vallery have more than opinion to support their claims. Last week, they and two other former female employees of the Club—ages 55 to 60—won a cash settlement resulting from their allegations of age and disability discrimination by the Club's director.

The women say Mel Jackson, Millionair Club leader for the past three years, ridiculed them and forced them out for being old and handicapped, replacing them with younger, attractive—and less qualified—women.

"The terms of the settlement are confidential," says attorney Beth Andrus, who represented the foursome in King County Superior Court. "But needless to say my clients are elated."

Club officials and their attorneys, who would not respond for comment on the women's claims, settled before the charges could be fully aired at a trial set to begin July 19. The charges leave unanswered questions about the Club's nonprofit charter which, under federal law, prohibits discrimination in any form.

Jackson recently won election to the board of Puget Consumers Co-op, the natural foods market chain. An African American, he promised to "bring additional diversity to the board" and noted he had been active in Tacoma community and government organizations, including heading up Tacoma's Department of Human Development. Among his PCC candidate statements was "A vote for me is one that will bring a new perspective on human rights issues."

Club defenders say the charity is struggling to shift with the times. "I think they needed a fresher approach to operations and fund raising," says a former Millionair board member. "Certainly some changes are necessary."

With a $2 million annual budget supported solely by grants and private donations, the Club dispatches around 2,000 jobs a month mostly to homeless men and women, who earn $7 to $9 an hour. Officials estimate the charity has served up more than 8.4 million meals since it was founded in 1921 by the late Martin Johanson. He thought getting a job made a worker "feel like a million" and dropped the e in millionaire so the charity wouldn't be confused with an exclusive rich men's club.

But in contrast to the agency's generous and bias-free history, the four women who sued for damages think the Club was anything but charitable to them.

Betty Johnson, once director of programs and the Club's second-in-command, first sensed the change when Mel Jackson didn't speak to her for three weeks after he took over in 1996, she says. Johnson knew for certain it was no longer the friendly place she'd labored at since 1993 when Jackson subsequently demoted her, ridiculed her at staff meetings, replaced her with a younger woman, and after a dispute told her to leave the Club for the day or he'd call security, she says.

In less than a year, Johnson had resigned because she felt working conditions became intolerable. "It's been very difficult," she says, "and extremely painful for me personally. What this has done is ruin my career."

Kay Greer, office manager of the Club's Women's and Family Center, felt the new undercurrents quickly as well. She recalls how younger women seeking employment were interviewed by Jackson for several hours while she got just five minutes to make a case for keeping her job. Jackson rarely spoke to her around the offices and once disciplined her by taking away her office keys for 10 days, she says, making her wait each morning outside the door until a coworker let her in.

After she appealed that and other actions to the Club's board, the Club issued a new employee manual that eliminated such board appeals retroactively, giving Jackson even more power. Employed since May 1996, Greer says she resigned in protest March 1998.

Donna Westergaard, who signed on as executive secretary in 1993 and rose to development director, found herself slowly stripped of her power, too, her duties handed over for the most part to two younger women Jackson had hired, she says. Westergaard was once placed on 30-day probation for her editing of a fund-raising letter (for failing to transpose one paragraph, she says), and during a dressing-down by Jackson was told to "sit there, be quiet, listen to him, and not to interrupt," she recalls.

Westergaard was fired last November allegedly for poor work performance. She says Jackson's new younger hires campaigned to terminate her.

Joan Vallery, the onetime client who signed on as an employment assistant in 1995, later became an aide in the job search program. After Jackson's arrival, she became a Club critic as well.

"We're not even giving assistance anymore," says Vallery. "They were cutting everything over at the Women's Center. They could no longer do this and they could no longer do that for anybody. They couldn't give out lunches anymore. I thought, 'You know, we're not a charity anymore. We're a corporation.'"

Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis for which she was prescribed morphine for pain and cortisone injections in her ankles, Vallery walked with a pronounced limp, which Jackson, she says, thought she was faking. "He said I was just limping for sympathy," Vallery recalls.

She eventually took an unpaid medical leave (for which other employees donated their vacation pay) and was never able to return to work, Vallery says.

But the Club still used her picture in its brochures as a "success story" for fund-raising efforts, which nettled her. The brochures also exaggerated the Club's meal, jobs, and thrift services, she adds. "They're saying in a brochure that they're doing things for people that they're [actually] not doing," Vallery says. "That's a lie."

The four women filed their lawsuit last year originally claiming age and disability discrimination, later amending it to include retaliation by Jackson for firing Westergaard and allegedly forcing out Vallery.

The foursome contend that Jackson—described as being in his late 40s—has demonstrated a "pattern and practice" of cavalierly discharging women over 50, and the four say they were disciplined for minor infractions while female workers under 40 got by unscathed (they cited one young woman who, despite once being found intoxicated on Club grounds, later got promoted).

Among the disciplinary actions Jackson took, the women said in their lawsuit, was one for alleged "malicious gossip" by Westergaard—for repeating to a supervisor a comment she says she overheard from Jackson. Talking about his physical strength, Jackson commented loudly, says Westergaard, that "I need to keep in shape because I might have to punch out a bunch of old ladies around here."

What does Jackson, his young newcomers, or the Club's board of trustees think about such complaints? None would talk in detail to us. Associate director Tiffany Dieffenbach, whom Jackson hired to replace Betty Johnson, said her boss was out of town last week, and she would neither comment nor give out names or telephone numbers of board members.

In court papers, the Club's attorneys admitted the newer hires are younger and inexperienced compared to the four ex-employees, but deny any intentional practice of replacing the women simply because they were older or physically impaired.

With the cash settlement from the Club, the four women may have made their point, but at least Johnson wished she'd had her day in court.

"Yes, I certainly do," she says. "My work was ruined, not just my job, replaced by nothing of value despite the settlement. I feel cheated in many ways."

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