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Black S.F. employees file racial discrimination lawsuit against city

Mallory Moench

Dec 11, 2020

Keka Robinson-Luqman, a junior management assistant for the SFMTA since 2016, alleged in a class action racial discrimination lawsuit filed Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, that her white manager used racist and stereotypical language with her and she was denied commensurate pay for work above her classification and a promotion she believed she was being trained for.

Three Black San Francisco employees filed a class-action lawsuit Wednesday against the city, accusing agencies of failing to provide Black workers with equal employment opportunities and prevent discrimination.

The plaintiffs work in the Municipal Transportation Agency, the Department of Public Health and the Public Utilities Commission. The lawsuit alleges they were paid less than non-Black colleagues, denied promotions due to their race and subjected to racist comments, harassment and treatment, including an anonymous note that called one a “monkey.”

“My morale is in the gutter,” said plaintiff Keka Robinson-Luqman, an SFMTA employee who said she has been the victim of racist remarks and unequal pay. Lower income has hindered her and husband, an agency bus operator, from saving enough to buy a house and putting their daughter in full-time preschool, she said.

“The most bothersome to me about all of this is that it’s consistently ongoing,” she said. “Colleagues who have been there 20-plus years explain almost the same exact issues that I’m going through. Nothing is changing ... This needs to stop.”

John Coté, spokesman for the city attorney, said privacy protections in personnel matters limit what the agency could publicly say, adding it would address the case in court.

“The City takes equal employment issues very seriously and is committed to fostering a welcoming workplace free of discrimination or harassment,” Coté said.

The class-action lawsuit filed in the Superior Court of California in San Francisco follows racial discrimination suits from a former firefighter and engineer in July and eight health department workers in October, as city agencies have intensified discussions about systemic racism. The city founded an Office of Racial Equity last year and produced a workforce report in March that highlighted data that showed “serious disparities between demographic groups, particularly along racial lines.” Black employees held lower-paying jobs, were less likely to be promoted and were more frequently disciplined and fired, the report said.

An SFMTA report last month also revealed that Black employees were disproportionately subject to discipline.

SFMTA director Jeffrey Tumlin said the agency has a “history of racism” against its own workforce. In the latest scandal, a Black employee who sued the agency for passing her up for a promotion after reporting harassment was also the victim of a forged settlement by a manager who has since resigned.

“I understand firsthand why more Black employees are unsuccessful in resolving issues in the city, because the processes and practices, the way that they are currently, are set up to work against Black employees,” said Dante King, a founding member of the city’s Black Employee Alliance, who worked for human resources and SFMTA and is now at the health department. “It’s set up to create a narrative and a facade that San Francisco is inclusive and is a model city for anti-racism. It is not.”

SFMTA spokeswoman Kristen Holland said the agency has implemented implicit bias training for the past few years and recently created a racial equity office and 90-step racial equity action plan that the board will consider for final approval next week.

“The agency takes seriously its significant responsibility to its almost 6,000 employees to have a workplace free from bias and discrimination,” she said.

Black people make up 15% of the city’s workforce, with 54% of the city’s Black employees concentrated in the three departments represented by plaintiffs, according to the workforce report. The report showed that white employees are nearly twice as likely to be in management positions as Black employees. White managers are paid an average hourly wage of $78.86 compared to $60.75 for Black managers.

The lawsuit also alleged that the human resources department failed to thoroughly investigate discrimination complaints. Last year, 32% of equal employment opportunities complaints were filed by Black employees, according to city data. Five of 579 complaints lodged last year were sustained, eight resulted in harassment prevention training and seven in discipline.

The three plaintiffs in Wednesday’s lawsuits had filed complaints. Plaintiff Alicia Williams, a licensed vocational nurse with the health department, found a note in an employee-only area of Laguna Honda Hospital that read “Alicia the monkey, black monkey” on Jan. 8. The city’s Equal Employment Opportunity office investigated, but officials told her they couldn’t identify the perpetrator, the lawsuit said.

Williams, who started working for the city in 2001, alleged discrimination and abuse from different white supervisors. She was fired in 2012 for “insubordination” and “damaging city property,” but reinstated in 2014 after an arbitrator determined that her manager’s actions were “racially tinged.”

The lawsuit alleges that Williams was more recently denied accommodation granted to white co-workers to take registered nurse classes, which would have helped her get a promotion, and subjected to disciplinary actions without asking her side of the story.

The second plaintiff, Robinson-Luqman, a junior management assistant in the board of directors division for the SFMTA since 2016, alleged that her white manager used racist and stereotypical language with her. She said that during a time when Muni was rocked by harassment complaints, her manager told her on more than one occasion that the situation had improved since “they used to do things like hang nooses at the office here.”

In 2018 and 2019, Robinson-Luqman said that her manager left or did not attend racial equity trainings, telling her she “was tired of hearing about what white people did to Black people” and had “real work to do.”

Robinson-Luqman said she has performed tasks above her civil service class without adequate compensation, despite having more education than a higher-level non-Black employee. This year, she applied for a promotion to board secretary, but didn’t get it even though she said she now performs many of those duties. Her discrimination complaint filed in February was initially assigned to Rebecca Sherman — who resigned after forging a settlement in response to another Black employee’s complaint — and then passed along to another officer, with no conclusion yet, she said.

The third plaintiff, John Hill, has worked as a laborer for the Public Utilities Commission since 1991. The lawsuit alleges that Hill was repeatedly denied promotions given to non-Black employees with lower seniority and inferior marks on civil service exams. Once, he was passed up for the family member of a retiring white supervisor, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit asks for a preliminary injunction to stop the city from engaging in discrimination and adjust wages and benefits for plaintiffs. It also demands that the court require the city to rewrite its policies and better train its human resources department.

“Even though the leadership has in some instances admitted to a history of racism, that’s not even half the battle,” said Felicia Medina, a partner with Medina Orthwein LLP, one of two law firms representing the plaintiffs. “We’re seeking both truth and reconciliation, and we want to be able to monitor the changes that we want to see.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misstated the name of a the city agency. It is the Office of Racial Equity.

Mallory Moench is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter:@mallorymoench

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