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Black S.F. Workers File Federal Discrimination Complaint

A group of Black city workers in San Francisco has alleged “rampant” discrimination and harm, specifically in racially disproportionate discipline of employees, after reviewing data released from the Municipal Transportation Authority.

(TNS) — A coalition of Black city workers in San Francisco, Calif., filed a complaint with a federal agency this week alleging "rampant" discrimination and harm, particularly in racially disproportionate discipline of employees.

The group based its complaint — filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — off data provided from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency that showed disparities in discipline for workers. From July 2020 to June 2021, Black workers were the subject of 49 percent of disciplinary cases, despite making up only 28 percent of employees. Other races had lower shares of cases than their proportions of the workforce.

The same employee could be a repeat offender in more than one case. Not all discipline is subjective — some transportation safety violations under state and federal law automatically trigger repercussions — and 93 percent of the transit operators subject to those laws are people of color.

But some specific incidents seem to reveal Black workers received harsher punishments than other races in similar situations. Last July, a white male driver who missed work received a written warning, while Black female drivers were each suspended two days for oversleeping — one last July and one in October.

In another case last December, the agency suspended a white employee for five days for falsifying time sheets, abusing overtime, violating the city's vehicle policy and holding an unauthorized second job. Last July, the agency suspended a Black worker for six to ten days for alleged overtime fraud, after initially recommending his dismissal.

"This is just a travesty," said Dante King, a leader in the Black Employees Alliance group with around 400 members that filed the complaint. "It's very striking."

Inequitable treatment of Black city workers is present across city departments, according to a report commissioned by Mayor London Breed that was released earlier this month. The report also revealed deep flaws in the city's process of resolving discrimination complaints, leading to employees losing faith in the system. The SFMTA has acknowledged racial disparities in the past and approved a racial equity plan last year to fix inequities, with nine of the plan's 80 promised reforms focused on discipline.

"The SFMTA is deeply committed to understanding workforce data related to discipline, hiring, training and employee experience, and implementing process improvement strategies to mitigate racial disparities," spokeswoman Erica Kato said.

The Black Employees Alliance also filed a state discrimination complaint in March and was told to pursue individual, instead of group, complaints, which four members have now done, King said. The state complaint alleged racial pay disparities, which the Department of Human Resources disputed, and disproportionate discipline, which it admitted was an issue.

The group decided to file the federal complaint Wednesday after receiving data from the SFMTA Tuesday.

Department of Human Resources spokesman Mawuli Tugbenyoh said Wednesday that the city "has not received an official complaint from the organization so we are unable to respond to its content."

"DHR remains staunchly committed to protecting our employees from workplace discrimination and harassment and cultivating a workplace that is welcoming and inclusive for all employees," he said.

King said the group filed the complaint because the transit agency has known about issues for two years following a scathing report by an ombudsman that spotlighted problems and proposed fixes, but he believes little progress has been made.

The SFMTA data provided information about each disciplinary case, including the race and gender of the worker, the date of the incident, the violation, and the recommended and then implemented punishment. The data seems to reveal some disparities in similar situations.

The Black Employees Alliance is scheduled for a call with a federal representative to assess their claim later this month. After that, the group can file an official charge of discrimination against the city. The two parties could enter into mediation through the federal agency that would take less than three months or the agency could request a written response and conduct an investigation for about 10 months. After six months or so, the agency could let the group sue the city in federal court.

The next update on the SFMTA's racial equity action plan is at the August 3 Board meeting.

(c)2021 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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