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Harassment investigations at SFMTA go nowhere, employees allege

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Sep 29, 2018

One employee reported a manager forced her to perform oral sex to keep her job. Another employee reported being blocked from a key promotion by a man who repeatedly attacked her with racial slurs.

And another employee, Sabrina Suzuki, reported earlier this week that her boss John Haley, the head of San Francisco’s Muni system, blocked her from promotions, touched her inappropriately, and made racially charged comments.

While seemingly disparate, all of these allegations share one thing in common.

All were reported to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency by its employees, and all complaints were found to be without merit by internal investigations — leading those employees to eventually file lawsuits. Those suits mostly settled.

On the heels of a national debate over allegations of sexual assault made against Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh and amidst the growing #MeToo movement, some SFMTA staffers allege San Francisco’s internal employee investigative agencies have swept complaints under the rug to protect employees accused of misconduct.

The City’s Human Resources Department and the SFMTA’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office — which is independent from The City’s similar offices — have been failing to follow through in investigations for years, employees said.

SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose said the SFMTA is one of a few city agencies that has transferred responsibility for responding to EEO claims to the SF Department of Human Resources because it provides more “independence for everyone involved.” But in a September City Hall hearing dozens of workers expressed similar criticism of that department’s handling of complaints.

“The [equal employment opportunity office] does need to change,” said Sarita Britt, “They don’t do thorough investigations.”

And those failures are leaving employees vulnerable to sexual, racial, and other discrimination, Britt alleges. Unions representing city workers, like SEIU 1021 and the Muni operators’ Transport Workers Local 250-A also recently scorched the EEO and city human resources.

The former deputy director of transit at SFMTA, Britt was the second-highest ranking official in charge of Muni operations and one of the few black women in a leadership position at the agency. Britt joined Muni’s ranks in 1981, driving streetcars and light rail vehicles when mostly men were behind the wheel. She broke glass ceilings while simultaneously attending college and raising her children.

Now she is retired, which shields her from rebuke from SFMTA leadership.

And while unable to speak to the allegations for legal reasons, Mayor London Breed told the Examiner she wants a city where employees feel safe to speak the truth.

“I want to be clear that in San Francisco our workers should never be subject to harassment, discrimination, or retaliation of any kind, and if they ever are, they should feel empowered to come forward and report any and all incidents,” Breed said in a statement. “I know how hard it is for people to step forward when these incidents do happen, and the City takes these complaints seriously and investigates them thoroughly.”

Britt’s condemnation of her former employers comes on the heels of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed Sept. 21 against Haley, director of transit at SFMTA. He is also Britt’s former boss.

Haley’s assistant alleged he would frequently ask her to fix something on his computer, then lean in close to touch her while she did so. She also accused Haley of asking her to show off her outfits, and touching her when she complied out of fear. She alleged he stopped her from training for promotions.

While Britt said she never saw him sexually harass women, she said she retired early due to Haley’s tantrums.

“He’s very aggressive with his employees and women … as far as him talking inappropriately, not promoting you, embarassing you, that’s been going on at Muni for a long time … he talks down to you. He hollers at you.”

Britt said Haley had little choice but to promote her due to her qualifications and stature in the agency.

She added that other managers also departed early due to Haley. Though the Examiner confirmed managers have retired, they declined to speak on the record about Haley.

“If you don’t have good leadership at the top it’s going to affect your streets, it’s going to affect your on-time performance, it’s going to affect the availability of the drivers,” Britt alleged.

The larger problem is the investigation entities within SFMTA: the SFMTA EEO and department of human resources. SFMTA has rarely brought a hammer down, she said.

“They’re too involved in management with human resources and (SFMTA director) Ed Reiskin’s office,” she said. “They need to be independent.”

Following the Examiner’s revelation of the lawsuit against Haley, an anonymous tipster wrote to the Board of Supervisors and various news outlets, “When will the City and County of San Francisco’s EEO Department, the Civil Service Commission and others in power take these claims seriously,” adding, “claims made by African Americans or minority females are not taken seriously.”

That tipster also attached three lawsuits, including Suzuki’s, which while stemming from accusations dating back to 2016 have not been widely reported.

These lawsuits detail cases that stemmed from EEO complaints that were later found to not have merit, which led the employees to file suit against The City.

In one suit, SFMTA employee Sherri Anderson accused her supervisor, Gerald Williams, of making “repeated unwelcome sexual advances” and demanding oral sex and sexual intercourse during work hours. Those demands became “unwelcome, severe, and pervasive” between 2010 and 2016.

“WILLIAMS repeatedly made offers and promises of favorable job treatment to Plaintiff in the context of his unwelcome sexual advances towards her, and in exchange for the sexual acts he demanded of her,” the suit alleged. Anderson feared Williams would retaliate against her if she did not say yes.

Anderson eventually agreed to have sex with Williams.

Williams then gave her favorable job assignments, and a salary increase. But it also came with a change in Williams’ behavior. Repeatedly, when Anderson found herself alone with Williams in his office and attempted to leave, Williams would physically block the exit, and on one occasion grabbed her breasts. Anderson slapped Williams in response.

Williams allegedly then began denying her vacation requests, imposed new requirements on her sick time use, and reported her to SFMTA senior management, accusing her of failing at her job. “In contrast to his previous, consistent high praise for her work,” he was now “yelling at Plaintiff and calling her ‘crazy’ in the presence of Plaintiff’s co-workers,” and cutting her off from vital job functions, including group emails.

On August 11, 2016, Anderson reported Williams to the SFMTA Department of Human Resources. Williams is still employed at SFMTA.

In March this year, the SFMTA Board of Directors approved a $250,000 settlement in her case.

In August, 2016, SFMTA staffer Kathy Broussard sued the agency over alleged misconduct by her supervisor, Chris Grabarkiewctz, head of fare enforcement.

Broussard, 49, a fare inspector supervisor, was given a promotion and became manager of the Proof of Payment unit at SFMTA in 2013. That promotion led to verbal outbursts from a fellow employee who believed he was promised that promotion. In response, Broussard filed a complaint with SFMTA’s EEO division, alleging harassment in the workplace.

But before and after that complaint, she said she was subject to racial discrimination by Grabarkiewctz. He was also the subject of a City Attorney’s Office investigation following an investigative report by the Examiner in 2015, which revealed he had awarded a roughly $40 million SFMTA security contract to a company who formerly employed him.

The complaint is extensive, and includes allegations that Grabarkiewctz sexually harassed Broussard. In 2014 Grabarkiewctz allegedly called her into his office and closed the door. He then complimented her outfit, took off his glasses and said, “It’s getting harder and harder for me to look at you,” a statement that made Broussard uncomfortable.

Broussard also brought this complaint before the EEO.

She also alleges in the complaint that Grabarkiewctz referred to her using a racial slur to a contractor, Robert Wolfgang, adding, “There is no way in hell I’ll let that n——- have that position after what she did to me,” meaning he would not promote her after she made an EEO complaint.

Speaking to the Examiner on Thursday, Wolfgang verified to the Examiner that he heard those comments. Wolfgang said he did not speak out against them at the time, though he did comply with an EEO investigation.

“Chris was relentless on how he spoke of her,” when she took leave from work for stress, he said, confirming that Grabarkiewctz used a racial slur against black people in regards to Broussard.

Though at one time a friend to Grabarkiewctz, Wolfgang was later terminated. Reflecting on Grabarkiewctz years later, Wolfgang said he did not come forward to stop Grabarkiewctz from making racist and sexist comments in the moment. The day Wolfgang spoke to the Examiner was the same day Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave historic testimony against Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh in a televised senate committee hearing.

Wolfgang said that testimony inspired him. He wishes he could turn back the clock and tell Grabarkiewctz to his face that he was wrong.

But much in the same way that Wolfgang stood by silently, he said the agency has also stood by silently.

“I was shocked and numb and felt like if I said anything I’d lose my job,” he said. “There are so many things I wish I would have done when working for him.”

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