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S.F. transit agency grapples with 'history of racism': Black staff disproportionately disciplined

Mallory Moench

Nov 19, 2020

A new plan aims to address and cope with “a very long and well-documented history” of racial and gender discrimination in the Muni workforce.

San Francisco’s transit agency introduced a racial equity plan at an emotional meeting Tuesday to grapple with what its director Jeffrey Tumlin called “a very long and well-documented history of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination against our own workforce.”

The plan presented to staff included data revealing that the Municipal Transportation Agency’s leadership is disproportionately white compared with the demographics of its workforce. Transit operators, the vast majority of them people of color, receive far more disciplinary action than their white counterparts or those in administration, and Black employees are disciplined at a higher rate than are white employees. The result is the agency losing Black employees, with higher rates of resignations and termination.

“We haven’t had equitable treatment for years,” said Kathy Broussard, a 15-year SFMTA employee who sued the city after being passed up for a promotion in the wake of reporting harassment. She was also the victim in a forged settlement from the human resources department. A manager resigned and is under investigation in that case.

“We are labeled, we are targeted, dismissed, stereotyped, overlooked, isolated, dehumanized and unsupported in our roles by managers and supervisors within the agency,” Broussard said. “For those of you who have the power to (effect) change, let’s join forces to accomplish the mission, because in the end, the cheapest price to pay is attention.

“I’m tired of being harmed, and I’m tired of my colleagues being harmed,” said Broussard, who now represents the agency’s Black and African American Affinity Group, formed last year.

Grace Kong, an employee who helped draft the plan, said the agency “has equity issues exacerbated by a staffing shortage and a history of documented toxic behavior that people are still trying to heal from.”

Kong, a Cambodian American refugee who identifies as lesbian, teared up when she told the board that micro and macro-aggressions “can be debilitating.”

The equity plan introduced Tuesday to root out racism in the agency of around 6,000 employees follows a tumultuous history. After a harassment lawsuit against the agency’s former director led the director to step down two years ago, Mayor London Breed appointed an ombudsman, Dolores Blanding, a former city human resources director, to investigate discrimination. Blanding released a scathing report.

Employees of color pointed out Tuesday that statistics revealing disparities haven’t changed since then, despite reforms initiated by the human resources department following recommendations in the Blanding report. During the meeting, staff leading groups representing Black, Latino, Asian and white employees and a dozen other staff who called in for public comment challenged the agency to make implicit bias training mandatory for supervisors and add staff to implement the plan despite COVID-19 budget challenges.

“The past never ended. It just manifested into the sophisticated structural and institutional racism and anti-blackness we see today,” Broussard said. “Racial equity should not just be for a moment; it needs to be a lived priority every day. We’ve had a seat at the table, but we’re still waiting to eat.”

The plan presented by staff revealed that white employees are only 14% of the agency’s workforce, but they make up 50% of senior management and 67% of the executive team.

A vast majority — 93% — of the transit operators are people of color. These frontline workers have received harsher punishments for the same infractions than their white counterparts and those in administration, staff said. Progressive disciplinary actions include written warnings, probation, suspension then dismissal. The plan did not reveal the causes of disciplinary action.

Black employees are 32% of the transit division, yet receive 51% of disciplinary actions. It’s worse for women: Of 160 disciplinary actions against female employees in the transit division, 144 — 88% — were against Black women. No disciplinary actions were issued against white women during the fiscal year that ended in June.

Broussard called on the board to halt disciplinary action until discrimination could be rooted out. Human resources head Kimberly Ackerman said the agency will look into who gives out discipline, to whom, how much and why to find the cause of disparities.

The agency also has trouble retaining staff, the plan said. In fiscal year 2020, Black people represented six out of 11 staff fired and 37 out of 49 who left the agency voluntarily.

The plan, which was initiated after the city founded an Office of Racial Equity last year, calls to prioritize racial equity within the workplace by the end of this year. The board will vote on adoption of the plan on Dec. 15 and present the final product to the city by Dec. 31.

The plan outlines seven areas to tackle, including recruitment and hiring, retention and promotion, discipline and separation, diverse and equitable leadership, mobility and professional development, organizational culture of inclusion and belonging, and diversifying boards and commissions. Each point includes specific recommendations with timelines and staff leads to implement.

The plan budgets for a new racial and equity inclusion officer and ombudsman to oversee it, but employees and directors wanted to see funding for more staff.

Dante King, who formerly led equity efforts alone at SFMTA, called in to the meeting and said that while it was a challenge working as the only Black person directly reporting to Tumlin, he was “overwhelmed with emotion” and thankful for the plan that he hoped would help address issues.

The agency’s human resources department will post a Blanding Report card online in February and provide another update in March. The racial equity plan calls for the future creation of a website with data on progress, quarterly updates to the board and reports to staff and an annual update to the board.

Board Chairwoman Gwyneth Borden, a Black woman, said that racism is “a very personal issue” for her.

“We have a lot of work to do to change the culture of SFMTA and move the ball forward,” she said.

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

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