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City ordered to rehire budget analyst who was domestic violence victim

Inspector General Joe Fergus |  Sun-Times file photo

Inspector General Joe Ferguson | Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: January 19, 2014 11:55AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration has been ordered to rehire — and give $234,000 in back pay to — an $80,256-a-year budget analyst fired in October, 2011 for violating the city’s residency requirement after being forced out of her Chicago home because she was a victim of domestic violence.

The Illinois Department of Labor sided with Valerie Tolson after concluding that Tolson was given “lip service” in her request for a residency “waiver” and that City Hall “had no clear and established policy” for making “workplace accommodations” for victims of domestic violence, as required by state law.

“The Office of Inspector General had tunnel vision, disregarding any other factors,” Illinois Department of Labor Director Joseph Costigan wrote in the previously undisclosed July 22 ruling.

“The financial difficulties and the claims of protection, the lack of interactive process and an understanding of what [the state law] required — these issues were basically deemed irrelevant… Rather than being a motivating factor, [they] were wrongfully ignored and not considered by the city in determining whether there should have been a waiver…. There is no evidence that [the city] cared the slightest about the reasons for the permanent departure from the city that it believed had occurred.”

Tolson, 56, accused Emanuel of hypocrisy for creating a domestic violence task force and building a shelter for battered women while thumbing his nose at the state law that’s supposed to protect victims of domestic violence from workplace discrimination.

The former budget analyst claims she was given the run-around after her now-deceased live-in boyfriend “forcibly removed” Tolson, her teenaged son and their belongings from the Chatham Park Village Co-Op they shared in July, 2009. City Hall responded to the ruling by noting that Tolson’s claims were made before Emanuel took office when there was “not a clear” policy in place for complying with the Victims’ Economic Security and Safety Act (VESSA).

Last year, the city implemented and trained department liaisons on a policy that outlines leave requirements and establishes a “clear process” for employees who are victims of domestic violence to request help and appeal when their requests are denied.

The policy also allows abuse victims to change their workstation phone number, install locks on office doors and adjust their “job structure” or work environment, if necessary.

Kelley Quinn, a spokesperson for the city’s Office of Budget and Management, also attempted to counter Tolson’s hypocrisy charge.

“Employee safety is a priority for Mayor Emanuel, particularly for domestic violence victims, which he has made clear during his administration by investing to build the city’s first new domestic violence shelter in a decade; making additional investments for court advocates to help women and family victims; by appointing a new domestic violence task force last month; and, in May, implementing the city’s most comprehensive VESSA policy since VESSA was enacted into law in 2003,” Quinn wrote in statement emailed to the Chicago Sun-Times.

As for Tolson, sources said the Emanuel administration has requested a hearing before the Illinois Department of Labor to discuss the facts of her case, including the “return of front-pay if the employee returns to work as well as her current residency to determine whether she can be re-hired.”

After temporarily moving into her mother’s cramped South Side apartment, Tolson and her son moved into the home she purchased as a rental property in suburban Riverdale.

She also got an order of protection against her former boyfriend, accusing him of leaving 95 harassing voice mail messages on her work phone and stalking her by showing up repeatedly in the lobby of City Hall.

According to Tolson, the boyfriend threatened to retaliate by telling Inspector General Joe Ferguson that his former girlfriend was living outside the city. An investigation was launched, complete with eight undercover surveillances.

“On the one hand, you’re claiming this big policy and building a shelter for these poor victims of domestic violence. On the other hand, I don’t have my job back. That’s just a bunch of rhetoric. It’s not real in my life experience. He’s talking out of both sides of his mouth,” Tolson said of the mayor.

“Tim Cawley [chief administrative officer for the Chicago Public Schools] received a two-year residency waiver so his daughter didn’t have to change schools. But I can’t get any assistance for a situation I’m in which is dangerous? I woke up one morning and I was displaced. I had no resources to make a move. I slept on my mother’s couch. I had a low credit score. I was looking for an apartment. Then, I started asking for help and couldn’t get any.”

Ferguson could not be reached for comment.

In a September, 2011 report recommending Tolson’s firing, Ferguson accused Tolson of: living in Riverdale from July, 2010 until April, 2011; failing to report her change of address; falsifying a change of address notification and failing to purchase city stickers during the period of time when she did live in the city.

Until the residency ordinance is amended, Ferguson further recommended that the Department of Human Resources “cease granting waivers” to any city employees.

Tim Coffey, an attorney representing Tolson, argued that what happened to his client was a “travesty.”

“She was out there [in Riverdale] only because she had no other place to go because she was a victim of domestic violence and they all know it,” Coffey said.

“When you have an employee who may be a victim of domestic violence come to you and ask for some relief, you have to figure out what that accommodation would be. It’s absolutely clear what she was asking for. She was asking to live outside the city on a temporary basis until she could find a place.”

Two weeks ago, Emanuel joined forces with State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to create a domestic violence task force. It’s charged with developing “state of the art training” for police officers with a focus on “accurate and detailed case reporting,” responding to the often dangerous calls with “empathy” and on providing a more “pro-active response” to high-risk incidents.

Every night, Chicago Police respond to 500 domestic violence calls. Every year, 40 of those calls turn deadly.

“I’m not going to make a promise I can’t keep…I don’t believe we’re going to eliminate this,” the mayor said on that day.

“But I do believe they’re going to know for the first time that, if you pick up the phone and make that call, you have somebody here who’s going to stand by you. And there’s a high chance that, if we do our job right, there’s going to be one less homicide victim because of domestic violence.”


Twitter: @fspielman

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