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YMCA denies former employee claims of racial discrimination

A former employee of the Ashland Family YMCA, Nkeruwem “Tony” Akpan, filed a lawsuit Oct. 24 against the fitness center in Jackson County Circuit Court, seeking $950,000 for 16 alleged violations including discrimination and harassment based on race, retaliation, failure to reasonably accommodate and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Akpan, who identifies as African American, began working for the YMCA in August 2015 and by July 2019 had been promoted to sports director.

“The YMCA has reviewed the press release issued by Mr. Akpan’s attorney, Thomas Dimitre. The allegations Mr. Dimitre makes are categorically false, and we are confident that your readership will understand Mr. Dimitre’s media strategy for what it is. We look forward to a judicial determination that the Y treated Mr. Akpan fairly and consistent with the law. Beyond that, we are unable to discuss the details of Mr. Akpan’s employment,” CEO Dan Crocker said in a prepared statement.

Akpan claims supervisors failed to communicate with him appropriately due to bias about his accent and further issued reprimands as retaliation for his complaints of discrimination.

Dimitre said no other disciplinary actions were issued on Akpan’s employment record prior to this series of events.

Around Jan. 6, Akpan made a formal complaint of harassment, discrimination and retaliation based on nationality, race and ethnicity, and requested an investigation into the matter, according to the suit. No formal response was issued, though a document was drafted criticizing Akpan’s work history, ethics and performance — later removed from his file when Akpan dropped the discrimination complaint out of concern for his job security, Dimitre said.

Dimitre denied any foundation for the “disparaging critique of his work” and poor performance evaluation, as Akpan received promotions, raises and positive evaluations in months prior.

Between June and July, Akpan reported two instances of racism and verbal attacks using racial slurs from customers and no action was taken, according to the suit. Akpan did not respond to the customers’ statements and immediately reported them to supervisors at the time, Dimitre said.

By mid-July, Akpan was demoted and sustained a pay cut — the only one on staff to lose hours and compensation, according to Dimitre. On Aug. 4, Akpan received a one-month notice of termination from the YMCA.

A separation agreement offered $2,910 in severance pay and agreement to drop claims alleged against the CEO, which Akpan declined.

“The YMCA attempted to coerce Mr. Akpan into signing a settlement in order to prevent him from suing. Mr. Akpan refused,” Dimitre said in a press release.

According to the YMCA employee handbook, if the allegations are founded, Akpan’s reports of discrimination are protected under the harassment and whistleblower policies and must be investigated accordingly.

Harassment is defined as “actions that create an intimidating, offensive, or hostile working environment, and other acts that have the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance, when harassing acts are based on a protected characteristic such as, but not limited to, race, color, sex, age, disability, religion, national origin or genetic characteristics.”

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497 and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

file photoA former employee of the Ashland Family YMCA, Nkeruwem “Tony” Akpan, filed a lawsuit Oct. 24 seeking $950,000 for 16 alleged violations including discrimination and harassment based on race, retaliation, failure to reasonably accommodate and intentional infliction of emotional distress.