Former Greater Providence YMCA employees file gender discrimination complaint

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Two former employees of the Greater Providence YMCA have filed a gender discrimination complaint against the organization and its CEO, former R.I. State Police Col. Steven O’Donnell, alleging he harassed, intimidated and bullied them.

The complaint, filed with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, names as defendants O’Donnell, the national nonprofit YMCA of the USA, and current Greater Providence YMCA board chair Jamia McDonald, as well as “certain Jane and John Doe Defendants.”

John Martin, the attorney for plaintiffs Linda Dykeman and Karen Cooper, said his clients are seeking “economic and punitive damages,” but he would not state a dollar amount. Dykeman was the non-profit organization’s Chief Financial Officer and Cooper was the Chief Development & Marketing Officer.

McDonald told Eyewitness News the dispute was initially provoked by board member concerns over multi-million dollar financial problems that were discovered at the end of last year. According to a recent news release, the organization has a $23 million annual budget.

McDonald said she was disappointed that the former employees “have attempted to hurt the YMCA” by filing the complaint.

“An independent investigation was conducted to assess the claims made against our CEO, and it found no merit in the claims,” McDonald said. We respect the process and look forward to working with the commission to ensure the truth is presented.”

But Martin argued that saying the internal investigation “did not find any merit to the complaint” was not a fair summary of the internal investigation.

“It would be hard to find a more clear-cut act of retaliation against these two employees,” Martin said.

The complaint alleges that O’Donnell would treat the plaintiffs differently than he treated male employees of the organization.

“He would send the females aggressive, threatening and demeaning emails and text messages at all hours of the night and on weekends,” the document states. “The males were not treated the same way.”

McDonald countered that O’Donnell has “a strong community ethic and decades of proven leadership success,” a reference to his roughly five years leading the state police.

Martin said the facts of the case should decide the outcome, not O’Donnell’s reputation, adding that both of the plaintiffs have “great reputations,” as well.

Regarding the non-profit’s financial health, McDonald said money problems were revealed to board members at a December meeting.

“The board was made aware that the YMCA was functioning with an annual operating loss for the past several years, as well as a highly extended line of credit,” McDonald said.

McDonald, who recently stepped down after about two years as acting director of the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families, said the YMCA is also facing an estimated $30 million shortfall for necessary capital improvements.

The Greater Providence YMCA has eight branches, 127 full-time employees and more than 1000 part-time employees.

McDonald replaced Gail Corrigan as chair of the board in late January. Corrigan had been the chair for about seven months, after serving as vice-chair for more than a year.

According to McDonald, O’Donnell is the organization’s third CEO in the past year, and its fifth in the past five years.

O’Donnell and Cooper chose not to comment on the complaint.

Dykeman and Corrigan have not returned requests for comment.

It should be noted, former State Police Colonel Steven O’Donnell is a contributor to Eyewitness News, as a law enforcement analyst.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.