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Suspended head of health care workers union reportedly engaged in lewd behavior

CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAF/File 2017

Tyrék D. Lee Sr. allegedly made unwanted advances to women in the office and sometimes engaged in lewd behavior in front of colleagues, according to several people with knowledge of his behavior.

By Globe Staff 

As a top executive at an organization that fights for workers’ rights, Tyrék D. Lee Sr. allegedly made unwanted advances to women in the office and sometimes engaged in lewd behavior in front of colleagues, according to several people with knowledge of his behavior.

Lee was suspended from his job at the state’s largest health care workers union in December amid allegations of inappropriate conduct, the Globe previously reported. Union officials launched an investigation, and Lee remains on unpaid leave.

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Lee was a vice president at 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East — an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union — before being promoted in 2016 to executive vice president, the union’s highest-ranking official in Massachusetts. In that role, he has advocated for better pay and conditions for low-wage workers in health care and other industries.

Union officials did not detail the complaints that led to Lee’s suspension. But several people with knowledge of the allegations against him and the investigation that followed described a range of inappropriate behavior over several years.

The people, who spoke with the Globe on the condition of anonymity, said Lee pursued sexual relationships with female co-workers by employing behavior that went beyond typical flirting; in text and e-mail messages, he sometimes used vulgar language about sexual acts he wanted to perform with them. They said Lee’s pursuit of colleagues included women who were younger and subordinate to him, putting the women in the difficult position of dating — or rejecting — a superior.

“What Tyrék did is harassment, plain and simple,” said one of the people with knowledge of the allegations.

In addition to interviews, the Globe reviewed notes, e-mails, and other records included in the investigation into Lee’s behavior.

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Lee, a longtime union official who started as a hospital telephone operator, did not respond to several requests for comment.

CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF/File 2017

“What Tyrék did is harassment, plain and simple,” said one of the people with knowledge of the allegations.

The allegations include unwanted touching by Lee on the arms, shoulders, and backs of women with whom he worked. In one incident, he allegedly exposed his genitals and urinated in front of several female associates in the parking lot of a restaurant where colleagues had gathered for drinks.

At work, Lee openly talked about women’s appearances, commenting on how he liked their hair or how “hot” their bodies were, the people said. Lee, who is 40 and became a father and grandfather at a young age, also allegedly bragged to colleagues about being a “hot” and “sexy” grandfather.

Union officials declined to answer questions about the specific allegations against Lee or say whether he would return to his job.

In a statement attributed to George Gresham, the president of 1199SEIU, the union said that it is taking steps to prevent harassment in the future. 1199SEIU is headquartered in New York and includes hundreds of thousands of health care workers in several East Coast states.

“Based on the findings of this investigation, and despite no evidence of criminal conduct, 1199SEIU made the determination to take appropriate action as well as take steps to prevent any future behavior which could pose a threat to our members and staff,” the statement said.

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“Sexual harassment and misconduct will not be tolerated on any level at 1199SEIU, and we will continue to stand together to fight for the rights of all working men and women to be treated with dignity and respect.”

1199SEIU has about 56,000 members in Massachusetts, including low-wage workers in technical, clerical, and service jobs at hospitals and other health care facilities.

Complaints about sexual harassment at the union — and about Lee, specifically — surfaced amid the #MeToo movement in late 2017, as growing numbers of people across the country began reporting incidents of harassment and assault that they had faced in their careers.

Recent allegations have forced some male executives in politics, entertainment, the news media, and other industries out of their jobs.

The tide of allegations includes organized labor. Several officials at the Washington, D.C.-based SEIU recently left the labor union following allegations of harassment and misconduct, Bloomberg News has reported. The SEIU with all its affiliates includes more than 2 million workers.

The health care workers affiliate, 1199SEIU, hired independent labor arbitrator and mediator Barbara Deinhardt to investigate allegations of harassment and misconduct. Deinhardt, who interviewed several people about Lee’s behavior in recent weeks, declined to comment for this story.

Tyrék Lee, before his suspension, was a frequent presence at political and labor union events, speaking at rallies and press conferences.

Lee, before his suspension, was a frequent presence at political and labor union events, speaking at rallies and press conferences. He has been involved with the national Fight for $15 campaign, which promotes raising starting wages to $15 an hour.

About two years ago, Lee also led a state ballot campaign to slash payments to Massachusetts’ largest hospital network, Partners HealthCare, and increase payments to some of Partners’ competitors.

The union and Partners eventually reached a deal to kill the ballot question.

Lee later served alongside health care executives and public officials on a special state commission that examined price disparities at different Massachusetts hospitals.

He was the first black man to lead a statewide union in Massachusetts. When he was promoted to executive vice president of 1199SEIU in 2016, he told the Globe about how he had overcome a difficult childhood and early adulthood.

He said he started working in hospitals to pay child support — he was a father of three by age 20 — but that hope and support helped him rise through the ranks to become a senior union official.

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey

can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.