U.S. sues Wisconsin agency after female candidate’s job offer

The WDMA offered a woman a much lower salary than a less-qualified male candidate for the same...
The WDMA offered a woman a much lower salary than a less-qualified male candidate for the same position, the Justice Dept. alleged in a lawsuit filed on Jan. 27, 2023.(Pixabay via MGN)
Published: Jan. 27, 2023 at 8:56 AM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) – The U.S. Justice Dept. filed a lawsuit against the Wisconsin Dept. of Military Affairs, alleging the agency violated federal law by discriminating against a Madison woman in 2017 when it offered a less-qualified man more money when hiring for one of its bureau director positions.

The lawsuit alleges Michelle Hartness was offered the Director of the Bureau of Response and Recovery at a much lower salary than the less-qualified man who got the job as well as the man who held a similar bureau director role in the agency. Additionally, it indicated the first salary offer to her was lower than the bottom end of the salary range listed for the role.

According to the lawsuit, filed in federal court on Thursday, Michelle Hartness worked at the WDMA from 2012 through 2017 and earned the highest overall rating (five stars) in five of her six reviews prior to applying for the director position and four stars in the other audit. At the time, she had risen within the agency to become the Wisconsin Dept. of Emergency Management’s Response Section Supervisor, one rung below the role she was seeking.

Hartness beat out approximately 20 other candidates to earn the WDMA selection committee’s nod to replace the then-retiring director, the Justice Dept. continued. The hiring supervisor, whose name was not included in the lawsuit, recommended Harness be offered a salary similar to what the Director of the Bureau of Planning and Preparedness was making at the time, i.e., $87,214 per year, saying Hartness was highly qualified for the role. The person who held the position Hartness was seeking was already in the same ballpark, making $85,904 every year. Additionally, the hiring supervisor pointed out when the Planning and Preparedness director was hired five years earlier, his salary was pegged so both directors were making about the same amount.

Former Adj. General Donald Dunbar, however, only authorized offering Hartness a salary of $78,000/year. Not only was that approximately 11% lower than the recommendation of the hiring supervisor and the salary for the other bureau director, the Justice Department notes, it is below the $79,040 to $91,250 salary range in the WDMA’s job listing. Dunbar rejected Hartness’ counter, which would have matched the similar bureau director’s pay, and upped his offer to the minimum amount the agency’s listed salary range, the lawsuit claimed.

Harness said no.

After Hartness declined the position, the WDMA reposted it – with a much broader $60,382 to $101,829 salary range, according to the Justice Dept. In addition to new candidates, people who already applied were automatically added to the selection pool. Hartness, who would have been included as part of those original applicants, informed the hiring supervisor she would still be interested, a notion Dunbar flatly rejected, the lawsuit says.

Former Adj. General Donald Dunbar
Former Adj. General Donald Dunbar(Wisconsin National Guard)

Dunbar retired in December 2019 amid a review of the Wisconsin National Guard’s failure in how it handled sexual assault, sexual harassment and retaliation allegations.

The WDMA responded to a question about the lawsuit, saying it takes such complaints seriously, but would not comment because the case is still ongoing.

The federal government claims the hiring supervisor believed Hartness was a better choice than everyone else in this new pool, including the new applicants. When a top choice was picked, it was a man who had not applied the first time around. He was offered approximately $87,000 per year, the federal government states, similar to the other bureau director and Hartness’ rejected counter. After that person declined the offer, the WDMA moved to its second candidate, which the Justice Dept. noted Hartness had beaten out in that initial round. The lawsuit alleges he was also offered a similar amount. When he did not take the job, Dunbar approved offering the now-third-choice candidate $85,000/year to start, increasing to $86,000 after a yearlong probationary period.

The lawsuit pointed out that the person who ended up getting the job - and an offer around $6,000 to $7,000 higher than Hartness - had ranked behind a person who had already been deemed less qualified than Hartness in the first round.

It went on to contrast the man who was chosen’s background with Hartness, saying he had less relevant experience, listing among other things it was an emergency management position and his experience was “almost exclusively emergency services, specifically fire,” while Hartness’ field was emergency management, including with WDMA’s Division of Emergency Management.

According to Justice Dept., Hartness left the agency in Sept. 2017. It alleges she suffered emotional distress and economic harm from the experience, including lost wages and benefits.

The lawsuit asks the court to award Hartness backpay and “all other appropriate monetary and equitable relief.” It also asks the court to compensate her for her pain and suffering. It also seeks to prevent the WDMA from such discrimination and implement policies to ensure a non-discriminatory workplace.

In addition to the state National Guard, NBC15 News reached out to Gov. Tony Evers office for a response and will update the story with any response.

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