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S.F. city workers subject to racially unequal treatment

Mallory Moench

Jul 9, 2021

Mayor London Breed commissioned the study of the city’s Department of Human Resources’ Equal Employment Opportunity processes.

San Francisco’s city government has problems with racially disproportionate discipline of its employees, a lack of opportunities for Black workers and an ineffective system of resolving worker complaints, according to an independent report released Friday.

Mayor London Breed commissioned the analysis of the human resources department’s Equal Employment Opportunity processes — which review worker complaints about discrimination, harassment and retaliation — last fall after the forgery scandal. Former human resources manager Rebecca Sherman resigned after admitting to forging a settlement with Broussard.

The city settled Broussard’s lawsuit in January and charged Sherman with two counts of forgery in June. Over the past year, the city has been hit with half a dozen discrimination lawsuits from Black or queer employees, including one class-action suit alleging unequal pay and racist treatment.

Gould said the report, which didn’t specifically address the forgery, could help avoid litigation and inspire other cities.

“San Francisco is the first big city as a general matter in the post-reckoning era of the (George) Floyd (police) murder in Minneapolis to focus on internal (human resource) policies,” he said. “My expectation is that other municipalities throughout the country, and perhaps smaller cities as well, will use this as a road map to addressing the problems they confront.”

The Department of Human Resources hired a new director of the EEO division last month and is developing a reform action plan, scheduled for release in the fall, to implement the report’s findings. The Controller’s Office is also working on an audit to improve the system that will be completed end of September. Breed included $1.9 million in the upcoming city budget to add more staff and a new database to make the complaint system more efficient.

“It’s critical that we’re doing everything we can to protect our workers from workplace discrimination and harassment and creating a welcoming environment for all employees,” Breed said in a statement Friday.

Human Resources Director Carol Isen said she was “grateful” for Gould’s report and is working as quickly as possible on addressing disparities, reforming systems and hiring staff.

"We’re working diligently to try and clean up that backlog,” she said. “Justice delayed, of course, is justice denied.”

Isen, who took over the department in March, said the Sherman case was the result of a “rogue employee.”

“We have no other instances of such conduct in the past and I won’t expect them in the future,” she said.

The 43-page report was based on dozens of meetings with city departments, workers employees and labor unions. There was also a website where more than 100 employees shared experiences from Dec. 1 to June. Broussard, who is a leader of the SFMTA’s Black & African American Affinity Group and member of the citywide group Black Employees Alliance, said she met with Gould at least three times.

The report contained 19 findings and 57 recommendations in three areas: the EEO complaint process; recruitment, hiring and advancement; and discipline.

It first concluded the complaint process was “seriously understaffed” and “over-complicated and inefficient.” Complaints take months or even years to resolve, leading many employees to lose faith in the system.

Out of the 130 complaints open in December 2020, roughly 78% had been open longer than six months. Some dated back to 2015.

The department lacked technology and enforceable deadlines and didn’t have enough staff to respond quickly to complaints, with roughly one investigator per 2,000 employees. Prolonged investigations let problematic behaviors persist and could lead to retaliation, the report said. City departments also weren’t require to implement recommended corrective action.

The report recommended that the city overhaul its complaint investigation process, setting a four-month deadline for completion and hiring more staff. Gould urged the city to employ more third-party mediation.

The report also said the city falls behind in recruitment, hiring and advancement of lower-level Black employees. Recommended solutions fixes included creating a more objective interview process and more apprenticeships.

And the report said Black workers are subject to disproportionate levels of discipline, which was acknowledged in a city report last year, and released more frequently from employment for medical reasons. The report called for further review of discipline citywide.

Broussard said Gould did an excellent job closing “several of the loopholes in a system that has almost always been unfavorable towards Blacks and African Americans.” She was hopeful it would prevent a situation like hers.

“If we confront the challenges proposed in the report, the reckoning will happen,” she said.

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

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