Disability discrimination alleged in hiring of county veteran’s officer
A group of veterans in Haywood County lodged a formal complaint claiming that the hiring process of the county’s veterans service officer was discriminatory.
The complaint states that one of the candidates was asked about their disability during their job interview in violation of Federal Equal Employment Opportunity laws. About a dozen veterans appeared at a county commissioners meeting last week to show their displeasure.
“Part of the reason why we got together is because we had concerns with how this process went down,” said Mark Schuler, a state liaison whose job is helping Haywood veterans find work. “Part of that process is unlawful. That is what we are saying.”
Roy Pressley, who was on the interview panel, agreed that one of the applicants was questioned about their disability. However, Pressley asserted the subject came up naturally in the course of conversation and had no bearing on the panel’s final recommendation for veterans services office.
“I remember someone was asked that question, but I didn’t think it was out of context of the questions being asked at that time,” Pressley said. “That had no bearing on me or anyone on the panel.”
While the veterans services officer is a county employee, a four-person ad-hoc committee was invited to participate in the interview and selection process. The veteran’s service officer serves as a resource and advocate for veterans in the county, particularly in applying for myriad veterans benefits and sorting out issues that may arise, so it seemed worthwhile to get insight from a group of veterans on who they felt would do well in that role.
About a dozen applicants responded to the job opening initially. Six came before the committee for an interview.
“We looked at the best person for that position,” Pressley said.
Following a full day of interviews, the committee narrowed the pack to two. County Manager Marty Stamey made the final hiring decision from those two.
The job went to Stephen Allred of Canton, who will start next week. Allred served in the U.S. Army and is a captain in the Tennessee Army National Guard. He is replacing Brandon Wilson, who transferred to the North Carolina Division of Veterans Affairs in Canton.
The matter came to Schuler’s and other veterans’ attention after the applicant who was questioned about their disability voiced concerns. Schuler said he feels it is his responsibility to help.
“We have to support each other when we feel someone else’s rights, especially a veteran’s rights, have been violated,” he said.
Schuler declined to name any of the applicants involved.
“We are not prepared to go public with any names at this point,” Schuler said. “We are going to let the commissioners do their thing.”
The county released a statement saying it will investigate the allegation.
“The county takes all matters regarding the integrity of our personnel practices very seriously. Haywood County also has a long history of honoring and serving our veterans and takes any questions related to these services very seriously,” the statement reads.
County Attorney Chip Killian said he was unsure how long the investigation would take and declined to say what might happen if it turns out laws were violated.
“I just can’t say. It’s just too speculative,” Killian said.
Haywood County Commissioner Chair Mark Swanger also declined to comment until the inquiry concluded.
“I don’t really have a comment until the results of the investigation are presented to us. I don’t want to prejudge anything,” said Swanger.
The complaints of misconduct by the hiring committee never reached Pressley until he was contacted for comment.
Pressley said the malcontents were only upset that their friend wasn’t chosen to fill the position.
“People are taking this way out of context. They were displeased because their friends were not hired,” said Pressley, who is a veteran himself.
Pressley dismissed the complaints as coming from a minority rather than the majority of veterans.
“We hired the best person for the position,” Pressley said.
The complaint is not a vendetta against Allred, Schuler said, adding that he holds no particular opinion of the new veterans services officer. Schuler said the grievances only pertain to the process.
However, Schuler also argued that if the committee did violate Equal Employment Opportunity laws, then its decision would not be legal either.
“Since the process was unlawful, then the selection — no matter who was selected under this process — was unlawful,” Schuler said.
The complaint presented to county commissioners by veterans also criticized new education requirements for the position, accusing the county of intentionally altering the standards to disqualify the assistant Haywood County veterans services officer “who we believe was the most qualified candidate,” it reads.
Previously, the veterans services officer only needed a high school diploma. However, this time around, the job description required a bachelor’s degree.
“The more educated person you have in a position such as this the better,” Pressley said.