MILWAUKEE – According to one lawsuit, antisemitism has been a recent problem at WTMJ-4.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Dec. 23, 2019 that former WTMJ-4 weatherman Scott Steele filed suit alleging antisemitic discrimination, but a Chronicle review of court documents unearths more details about an alleged “culture of discrimination” at the station.
Steele’s suit against Scripps Media in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee alleges discrimination and a hostile work environment at its station, channel 4 in Milwaukee. Steele was at the station from 2007-2017 and worked as a weatherman.
Steele’s suit alleges that an anonymous complaint and anonymous staff survey forced the station to conduct an internal investigation. The station then held an all-employees meeting on May 23, 2017, where station management exonerated itself, according to Steele’s complaint.
The suit offers examples – including one alleged comment about Steele wanting “all of his Jew holidays off” ¬– that are purported to add up to a hostile work environment. The suit also alleges younger Jewish employees quit after enduring discrimination. Finally, an internal memo may contain clues to what the Scripps Media response may be to Steele’s allegations – that perhaps he was the problem.
‘Jew holidays off’
The suit alleges several examples that are intended to help demonstrate a hostile work environment at channel 4, also known as WTMJ-4. These include:
– Steele arrived to work to find a cross on his desk. He removed the cross and put it on top of a communal mini fridge away from his work area. The next day the cross was placed back on Steele’s desk, and again he transferred it to the mini fridge. The next day the cross was pinned to the official department bulletin board adjacent to Steele’s desk.
– After requesting vacation time for the High Holy Days, Steele learned that a coworker complained about Steele getting “all of his Jew holidays off and all of ours,” or words to that effect. The individual who complained about Steele’s “Jew holidays” was later promoted.
– Certain colleagues would visibly roll their eyes or glare disapprovingly when Steele and the two other Jewish members of the newsroom would hug and wish each other a “good Shabbos.”
– A manager circulated an internal memo detailing the importance of “CHRISTIAN Holy Week” with an explanation of the holidays and the word “CHRISTIAN” in all capital letters and repeatedly emphasized. There were never any comparable memos about any other religion.
Younger Jewish employees
The suit offers alleged examples of employees other than Steele also facing a hostile work environment at WTMJ-4. These include:
– A younger Jewish man, also an on-air talent, was assigned to work on Shabbat and was ultimately denied a promotion. He was allegedly told, “it’s just who you are.”
– A female Jewish employee left briefly during a quiet part of the day to pick up a female health product she urgently needed. The next day she was berated by management, yelled at, and told a disciplinary note would be placed in her file, even though other employees would regularly come and go with impunity, according to the suit.
Scripps’ possible defense: Steele
Steele filed a charge of discrimination against Scripps Media with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on March 2, 2018. Now, his federal lawsuit alleges Scripps Media rewrote an internal memo before it was submitted to the EEOC proceedings. Excerpts from the two versions of the memo are included with Steele’s December 2019 federal court filing. Though Scripps Media did not respond to requests for comment, the two versions of the memo may provide clues to what Scripps’ defenses will be.
The memos appear to indicate management saw Steele’s approach as the problem, as opposed to a hostile culture.
Managers allegedly write to Steele that “you need to significantly improve your interactions with co-workers by consciously working on your approach” and that “there was not retaliation and that your management team is allowed to manage your performance and behaviors.”
“You need to be self-aware of the way you respond to coworkers and how people feel when you raise your voice or yell at them when you disagree or don’t like what they are saying to you.”
But according to Steele’s suit, on his 2017 performance review he achieved the highest possible score of ‘5’ on each of his individual performance goals and a ‘4’ for his overall performance.
Steele’s attorney declined to comment on the litigation in progress.