OLYMPIA – The head of Washington state’s Employment Security Department has resigned after an outside investigation found several employees complained about him putting his arms around them or looking at their bodies in ways that made them uncomfortable.
Dale Peinecke sent his resignation letter Monday to Gov. Jay Inslee, who announced Thursday he had accepted it and that his office is beginning a search for a new commissioner. While Peinecke said in his letter his resignation would be effective June 30, Inslee said Thursday that it would come sooner than that.
The agency releases the state’s monthly unemployment update and processes unemployment claims as well as administers programs to help the unemployed find work. Peinecke was appointed by Inslee in January 2013. According to his online bio, he previously spent nearly four decades in the aerospace and materials industries.
“While good progress has been made at ESD on many fronts, we take issues related to workplace culture very seriously,” Inslee said in a written statement. “This is an opportunity for all of us to reaffirm the importance of treating all of our employees with respect and fairness, and help every one of our state employees feel they are supported to do their jobs well.”
In interviews with 16 employees, the report – written last month by Deborah Diamond of D Diamond Consulting – talked to 10 people who expressed either personal experience with Peinecke or witnessing interactions that made them uncomfortable. Other other employees said they were treated with respect and did not witness any inappropriate behavior, though one person noted that they “provided guidance” to Peinecke and told him it’s not generally a good idea to hug subordinates.
Diamond’s report concluded that Peinecke makes some employees uncomfortable when he puts his arm around them and that “Subordinate employees have felt they had to tolerate Mr. Peinecke’s physical gestures because of his position.”
“Looking employees up and down and/or staring at women at the chest level, for whatever reason, is inappropriate behavior which makes Mr. Peinecke vulnerable to claims of harassment with sexual overtones,” the report says.
In his response within the report, Peinecke said he is “outgoing and gregarious” but denied doing anything to intentionally make anyone feel uncomfortable.
Peinecke said he was “dumbfounded that any woman thinks I am staring at her breasts or dressing her down with my eyes.”
“If I am doing that, it is not a conscious behavior,” he told the investigator. “I had no awareness that I was making anyone uncomfortable. I am disturbed and somewhat shocked by this feedback.”
The investigation began at the end of December, a month after a complaint was filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Seattle on behalf of ESD employee Cathy Petrie, who alleged both age and sexual discrimination, in which concerns about Peinecke’s behavior were noted. A complaint with the Washington State Human Rights Commission was also filed in December on behalf of Petrie, according to records released by Inslee’s office.
One person interviewed noted an elevator ride with him that made her “very uncomfortable.”
“Quite frankly, I have never had a man gawk at me in such an obviously leering way, even in a bar when people are under the influence of alcohol,” the person, identified only as Witness O, told the investigator.
Other witnesses interviewed said they didn’t take any issue with Peinecke’s interactions with staff.
In his letter to the governor this week, Peinecke doesn’t address the allegations, and cites progress made at the agency, including reduction of annual spending and the creation of a career readiness program. He notes that he is set to turn 65 in June and that “it’s time for me to pass the ESD leadership baton, and it’s time for me to focus more of my energy on my family, friends and on others around me that need my help.”
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