WASHINGTON – Martin Luther King Jr. is often remembered for his “I Have a Dream” speech and the hope that his four children would be judged on the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
Renee Berry, of Washington, D.C., brought up the speech and said she’s the same age as King’s youngest daughter, 44-year-old Bernice King, when talking about the obstacles to her success.
His dream hasn’t come true in her own experiences, Berry said, because the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office fired her twice for what she thinks was discrimination and retaliation.
“Here we are in the 21st century and it’s like the tables have turned backward,” Berry said. “It’s no longer the glass ceiling. You hit a concrete wall.”
Berry is one of several whistleblowers who will join Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Mitchellville, at a news conference Tuesday introducing legislation to improve an existing whistleblower protection law for federal workers, the No Fear Act of 2002. Wynn announced the bill in December, but is drawing attention to it now that the House is back in session after its holiday recess.
The No Fear Act was a good start, Wynn’s Press Secretary Eriade Hunter said, but it’s vague and workers are still complaining about discrimination and retaliation.
“Yes, it’s on the books. But, it’s not being enforced vigorously enough,” Hunter said. “There’s a gap there, and it fills in the gap.”
Wynn’s bill calls for complaint cases to be sent directly to federal court, ensuring each worker is provided legal counsel, and tripling plaintiff awards for damages and attorney fees. Agencies will also be required to release how much they spend addressing workers’ complaints.
Berry began work as a patent examiner in 1996 and said she had received good ratings and productivity awards. In 2000, the patent office even paid for her to go to The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law at night.
The patent office fired Berry for low productivity and incorrect work on Jan. 6, 2006, a year and a half after she graduated from law school.
“That improvement wasn’t appreciated,” Berry said.
Berry challenged her termination and returned to work in August 2006 as part of a settlement with the patent office.
But Berry was fired the second time in November, she said, after contacting Congress members and testifying at a No FEAR Tribunal about the retaliation she faced after being rehired. The patent office again said it was for low productivity, she said.
“This is an abuse of power and when you report to Congress, your hands get chopped off,” Berry said. “They know we’re naked and have no protection whatsoever.”
The new legislation, Berry said, will let workers speak out about discrimination without fear of retaliation.
Binta Robinson, 35, has worked at the patent office for about nine years and said she has filed five or six discrimination and retaliation complaints stemming from 2004 when a previous supervisor repeatedly gave her work bad marks. Robinson also testified during the No Fear Tribunal in May and hopes Wynn’s effort will bring change.
“They have a pattern of doing this to a disproportionate amount of black people,” Robinson said. “It just seems like if someone doesn’t like you they could ruin your career and there’s very little you could do.”
The patent office doesn’t comment on staff issues, but spokeswoman Jennifer Byrne said complaints are taken very seriously.
“USPTO management is committed to a workplace free of discrimination and retaliation, and to ensuring that all employees are aware of their rights as well as the safeguards that are in place to protect them,” Byrne said in an e-mail.
Berry is now challenging her second termination through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and hopes she can get her job back, again.