African-American workers accuse Chicago Water Department of racial discrimination, harassment

By Scott Holland | Jun 30, 2017

A group of African-American employees have filed a lawsuit alleging a pattern of racial discrimination and harassment aimed at black workers in Chicago’s controversy-plagued Department of Water Management.

Named plaintiffs Derrick Edmond, Katherine Ealy, Craig Robinson, Eddie Cooper Jr., Vicki Hill, Robert T. Laws Jr. and Adebola Fegbemi filed a class action in federal court in Chicago June 29 alleging the water department is a “hostile and abusive work environment based on race that includes violence, intimidation, retaliation and constructive discharge.” Some of the plaintiffs had worked at the water department for more than 30 years.

In addition to the city, named defendants include Randy Conner and Barrett Murphy, acting and former water department commissioners, respectively; John Pope and Alan Stark, deputy commissioners; Edwardo Salinas, water purification engineer; and Joseph Lynch, water department CEO.

The complaint accused the water department of several routine and deliberate acts that, combined, “weave a tapestry of hostility that dominates every aspect of class members’ existence in the department.” The plaintiffs allege black employees are assigned less desirable work shifts, work assignments and days off, and are also denied overtime, promotions, transfers, training opportunities and proper compensation. They further alleged intimidation, race-based harassment and racially-charged conduct, workplace violence, and allege they and others were subjected to retaliatory transfers and terminations as well as “harsh and undue discipline.” They said the hostile work environment has caused employees to resign.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of reports published by The Chicago Sun-Times, disclosing the city’s Inspector General had uncovered racist, sexist and homophobic emails while investigating whether an alderman’s son had used a city email account to sell guns.

The new complaint said more than 2,100 people have full-time water department jobs and belong to, among other labor organizations, the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 399; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employee Council 31; Pipefitters Association Local Union 597; Service Employees International Union Local 73; and Laborers Local 1092. The plaintiffs allege the department “consistently and deliberately, based on race,” failed to comply with written policies regulating promotions, transfers and overtime negotiated as part of union contracts.

The plaintiffs’ complaint specifically alleges black employees are made to work three times as long as white counterparts before receiving promotions, while many other job openings remain unfilled until a “handpicked” white applicant is selected.

“Black employees are chilled and deterred from applying for promotions or transfers because of the Department-wide policy that they will not be promoted or transferred because of their race,” the complaint stated, further alleging “black employees are subject to racially derogative language by non-Black managers and employees.”

The plaintiffs allege nonblack colleagues sabotage and tamper with black employees work areas and those who “who attempt to question their treatment are physically intimidated, threatened, and verbally abused. Black employees are subjected to racially insensitive email, screen savers, posters, cartoons and graffiti” while black female workers “are sexually harassed daily by being subjected to unwelcomed sexually-motivated jokes, comments, and innuendo on a regular basis. Black female employees are called bitches and whores on a regular basis.”

The plaintiffs seek establishment of a race class, which would include as many as 500 current or former employee who may have encountered alleged race-based discrimination, as well as a wage class, for as many as 100 workers who, based on job description, could have been entitled to overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

In addition to class certifications and a jury trial, the plaintiffs want the court to force the city to end the alleged discriminatory practices, as well as award lost wages and benefits, compensatory and punitive damages and job reinstatement to former employees who can establish they were terminated based on their race.

Representing the plaintiffs, and seeking to serve as putative class counsel are attorneys from the firm of Henderson Parks LLC, of Chicago.

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City of Chicago Henderson Parks LLC U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

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