An Asian American woman who works for the Maine Public Employees Retirement System has sued the agency in U.S. District Court in Bangor alleging that she has been discriminated against due to her race.
Mary Lee, 64, of Gardiner accused a supervisor and at least one co-worker of making comments that have created a hostile work environment for the past seven years.
Lee’s attorney, Laura White of Kennebunk, said that her client’s experience is an example of the prevalence of discriminaiton against Asian Americans in the United States.
The Maine attorney general’s office, tasked with defending state agencies, declined to comment on the lawsuit. It is the practice of the attorney general not to comment on pending litigation.
“Mary Lee is still employed by MainePERS and therefore we cannot provide much information about her pending lawsuit,” White said. “However, this case is an example of the hurtful anti-Asian discrimination that is so pervasive in our society today.”
A recent study found that anti-Asian hate crimes reported to police in 16 of America’s largest cities and counties rose 164 percent, from 36 to 95, in the first quarter of 2021 compared with the first quarter of 2020. Many of the documented attacks in the U.S. against people of Asian descent have been associated with false information related to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic around the world after the disease was first discovered and identified in China.
The analysis of preliminary data by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, used data from jurisdictions that accounted for over 20 percent of all FBI reported hate crimes in 2019.
In Maine, two hate crimes involving anti-Asian bias have been filed with the attorney general’s office, according to spokesperson Marc Malon. One occurred in 2016 in Rockland and the other took place in Portland in March.
Lee was born in Hong Kong but came to the United States more than 50 years ago. She grew up in the Boston area, where she “witnessed blatant anti-Asian acts of hatred,” the complaint said. “Her family’s home was vandalized, her grandfather was assaulted and she heard people use racist hate speech toward her and other Asian Americans.”
Lee, who began working for the agency in 2013, is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
Her job includes discussing with public employees their investment options for retirement. Her help and advice was praised by the people she dealt with, according to the complaint.
The complaint, filed Thursday, outlined examples in which Lee was hurt and upset by offensive comments concerning her race. The first was in 2014 when a supervisor allegedly said “All Asians are drug dealers,” and “Do you sell drugs?”
Lee was “humiliated and devastated by this comment” and filed a grievance with her union and employer, the complaint said. Two years later, she again “felt uncomfortable and singled out at work” because of her race, national origin, ethnicity and cultural beliefs over birthday celebrations at the office.
The office observed employees’ birthdays once a month. In Lee’s culture, it is bad luck to celebrate a birthday after its date and the office party was after her birthday, according to the complaint. In 2016, she asked to have her birth date included in the previous month’s event but the request allegedly was met with hostility.
“Instead of approaching Lee’s request regarding birthday celebrations with understanding of or respect for Lee’s cultural beliefs, MainePERS treated Lee’s request like it was unreasonable and obnoxious, further contributing to the hostile working environment,” the complaint.
An answer to the complaint is due 21 days after the attorney general’s office receives it.