Social Insecurity

Guadalupe "Lupe" Salinas was controversial long before he was appointed to head up Denver's regional Social Security Administration office in 1991. But five years into his tenure at the SSA, it's hard to track the many bureaucratic tiffs involving Salinas without a Social Security scorecard. Not only have nine of Salinas's managers filed discrimination complaints against him--both internally and with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission--but two of them have hit the agency with lawsuits during the past ten months. The suits accuse Salinas of discrimination based on race, age and sex--and of promoting a woman with whom he allegedly is involved in a sexual relationship.

Salinas has been dogged by similar complaints since at least 1988. But his critics contend that Salinas has never been punished because of his window-dressing status as the agency's first Hispanic regional commissioner. "They're afraid to admit they made a mistake," says one former Social Security employee, himself a Hispanic.

Of the nine equal-opportunity complaints filed by Salinas's managers since 1991, four have been settled and at least three cases are still pending. (The complainants who settled with the agency aren't permitted to disclose the terms, but several say they are pleased with the outcome, despite the fact that the government did not admit guilt.) Four of the managers have since accepted retirement buyouts and left the agency.

Perhaps the most titillating accusations against Salinas came in an age-discrimination suit brought this past June by Patti Lovaas, a former training specialist with the agency's Denver office. Lovaas, 52, claims that after Salinas took the helm of the regional office, she was denied training and advancement opportunities and was systematically and "relentlessly" relieved of her duties, which were given to younger employees.

"Prominent among those younger employees," Lovaas says in her suit, "was a female employee, Carolyn Sykes [now 41], who was having an affairE with Guadalupe Salinas."

Salinas and Sykes became lovers in April 1992, Lovaas claims in her suit, and just one month later Sykes was appointed Salinas's "special assistant." Later that same year, Lovaas charges, Sykes was granted a promotion and pay raise. From that point on, Lovaas claims to have been excluded from "major" teams and committees at the office.

In an application for an early-retirement buyout in November 1994, Lovaas said that her departure from the agency was "voluntary." However, she now claims she was "constructively discharged" in January 1995 and that she left in part because she'd been subjected to a work environment "in which compliance with sexual advances led to favorable treatment for a younger, female employee."

Neither Salinas nor Sykes would respond to questions from Westword. A Social Security Administration spokeswoman claims the two cannot speak because the suit is still pending. But both parties have admitted in depositions that they have been involved in a relationship for several years.

"Both Ms. Sykes and Mr. Salinas say the relationship began in the summer of 1993, and that [Sykes's] promotion happened before the affair began," says Ron Gregson, Lovaas's attorney. "They take the position that their relationship has had nothing to do with her good fortune in being promoted or with her being given certain assignments at work." In addition, Gregson says, Salinas, who is single, objected to the word "affair" to define his relationship with Sykes, who is divorced.

Since taking Salinas's deposition, Gregson has asked a federal magistrate to allow him to depose seven more people. Gregson says he believes the additional information might impeach Salinas's testimony regarding the timing of the affair, as well as Salinas's denial that he has been involved with other female subordinates in the Denver regional office.

Although Lovaas declined to be interviewed, several of her coworkers say Salinas treats women as little more than pretty "pawns" to decorate the office. "He wants to hire--and give attention to--younger, more attractive women," says one female employee, who asked not to be identified.

The other recent lawsuit accusing Salinas of bias was also filed by a woman. In that action, Rosaline "Rusty" Shapiro accuses Salinas of paying higher wages to male employees for performing equal work. In addition, Shapiro--a Hispanic who has consistently received high performance ratings--claims that she has been denied merit pay and promotions based solely on her race and sex.

Accusations of discrimination and favoritism in hiring and promotions are nothing new to Salinas. In 1988, when he was serving as a regional admini-strator for the SSA's Family Support Administration, his employees accused him of manipulating hirings and promotions and of telling sexist, racist and off-color jokes. In a September 1989 memo, one of Salinas's supervisors reported that Salinas had been "counseled" and required to attend a training program as a result of those complaints.

The accusations came back to haunt Salinas in the spring of 1991, when his name surfaced as a finalist for the regional commissioner's job. Representatives of the black community blasted his track record and opposed his appointment. Members of the Hispanic community, however, lined up to applaud his nomination.

Now, though, Salinas is losing some of that support. Several of the formal EEOC complaints filed against him in the past few years have come from Hispanic managers, who say Salinas runs roughshod over employees who decline to pledge their allegiance to him.

Nor have whites been left out of the complicated puzzle--several complaints have come from white males who say they feel that Salinas has discriminated against them, as well.

"What I think has happened," says one stalwart Salinas supporter within the agency, "is that Lupe is getting a bad rap. He came in at a time when the administration was in turmoil. And he's getting blamed for everything.

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Karen Bowers