Penis Cake Leads to Investigation of Racism, Sexual Harassment at Michigan Morgue

A former employee claims her colleagues shared pornographic images in the office and made cruel jokes about bereaved Black families.
August 5, 2020, 11:00am
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Penis-related paraphernalia is something you might expect to see at a bachelorette party, but certainly not in the workplace—especially when you work at a county morgue. But according to the Detroit Free-Press, that's exactly what the work environment has been like at the Macomb County (Mich.) Medical Examiner's office and, as a result, three female morgue employees have been fired. A fourth morgue worker has been placed on paid leave during an investigation into further allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior. 

A woman who has been identified only as a Macomb County death investigator and a person of color told the Freep that, after five years of racially insensitive comments, dick jokes, and harassment, a cake was what finally prompted her to file an official complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). 

According to the investigator’s complaint, on May 26, one day after George Floyd was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis, an off-duty morgue staffer brought a "medium-sized sheet cake that had been decorated with a black penis" and left it in the room where the employees eat their meals. Four days later, the cake was still in the office—as was a balloon that someone had decorated with a hand-drawn penis. 

"I was livid, furious actually," she told the Free-Press. "All these cities are on fire for the Black Lives Matter movement, and here's my staff eating a black penis cake as a joke? That really pushed me over the edge."

For several weeks, she says she tried to avoid her increasingly unprofessional colleagues by moving her desk to a different part of the office, switching to the night shift, and working weekends. Nothing changed, she said; if anything, it got worse. "I felt that it was so egregious, so out of line and so brazenly conducted on a daily basis—and nobody cared," she told the Free-Press. In mid-July, she filed a formal complaint with the EEOC and with Macomb County. (VICE has reached out to the EEOC and Macomb County officials for comment, but has not yet received a response.)

"There has been an ongoing hostile work environment within the Medical Examiner's Office since I have been here," her complaint read. "The office culture is tainted with racism toward people of color. This was not only ignored by managing personnel, but participated in by the supervising staff."

In addition to jokes of a sexual nature, all-nude photographs, and drawings of male genitalia, the investigator said that she has had to endure racially motivated harassment as well. She alleged in the complaint that when Black families arrived at the morgue, she was told to "Go deal with your people." Earlier this summer, when a "distraught family" damaged a door at the morgue, a supervisor asked her "Are they Black? [...] They can break the doors and nothing will happen to them with everything going on, because they are Black." 

And on one profoundly disturbing occasion, two grieving Black parents struggled to identify a decomposing body as their son. One morgue worker allegedly told her to "show them a picture of his penis" because "maybe they'll recognize him by that." 

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said that the three employees were terminated for displaying pictures of nude men in the office, and for using pornographic images as their computer screensavers. "There is no tolerance for that type of conduct or behavior,” Hackel told Macomb Daily. 

“We take this super-serious and took action on the substance of the claims," Andrew McKinnon, the county Human Resources Director said in a statement. "We want our employees to feel comfortable to come forward if they feel there is something inappropriate going on in the workplace. We want everyone to feel included, safe and accepted in Macomb County government." (The men added that the county "did not substantiate" the investigator's allegations of racial discrimination or harassment.) 

In 2016, another Macomb County morgue employee filed a complaint with the EEOC, alleging sexual harassment in the office. Her case is still pending; she was fired shortly after she made a formal complaint.