In 2019, marine engineer Lawrence Thomas and firefighter David Hawkins — two members of the minuscule cohort of Black people to ever work on the San Francisco fire boats, a group that could probably fit in a canoe — stood on the steps of San Francisco City Hall.
Hawkins decried “illegalities percolating downward from an ever-corrupt Department of Human Resources,” and labeled its longtime director, Micki Callahan, “the ringmaster of corruption and dysfunction” in San Francisco.
And, now, Hawkins is an ex-firefighter.
Following this speech, the 52-year-old says he was never allowed to work a day on the fireboat again. Thomas, 44, says he hasn’t received a full shift on the boat since that day, either.
In July 2020, Hawkins and Thomas sued the city for discrimination — and, notably, alleged strikingly casual corruption and dysfunction percolating downward from the Department of Human Resources.
In September, the scandal broke.
On Sept. 18, Callahan sent an email to virtually every city elected official with the gobsmacking subject line “Corruption at DHR…” This was so jarring that elected officials told me that they wondered if Callahan’s email had been hacked.
It hadn’t been. But, arguably, her department had.
Callahan’s message outlined the strange and terrible saga of Rebecca Sherman, a former HR manager who now stands accused of a cinematic and baffling series of lies and forgeries culminating in Sherman allegedly forging a Deputy City Attorney’s signature on a bogus $514,000 discrimination settlement for an aggrieved Black female MTA worker.
The longtime DHR boss’ retirement date was moved up after the Sherman matter went public; Callahan’s last day was in early October. Mission Local has additionally learned that Linda Simon, Sherman’s direct manager in the Equal Employment Opportunity office, last week went out on a three-month medical leave.
In her email, Callahan labeled Sherman a “rogue employee” — but Mission Local earlier this month reported that Callahan was, on multiple occasions, informed of Sherman’s apparent misstatements and dubious actions weeks before the full brunt of her behavior came to light. There were, apparently, no interventions.
Fobbing off Sherman as a mere bad apple rankled the Black employees whose questions about hinky goings-on at DHR had spurred Callahan’s mea culpa in the first place. And it also rankled a series of HR professionals around the city, who told me that DHR systematically waters down complaints spelling out accusations of racial animus to merely indicate discontent from disgruntled workers.
“A complaint about not getting a job because of race or discrimination would be categorized as a ‘work assignment issue.’ And then not get addressed,” one departmental HR official said.
The complaints leveled by Hawkins and Thomas in July resonate a bit more after what subsequently came to light about internal goings-on at DHR. And, separate and apart from the cinematic allegations against Sherman, plenty of Black San Francisco employees had drawn similar conclusions long ago.
“They’ve been more in the practice of putting the complaint away instead of investigating what your complaint really is,” says Capt. Sherman Tillman, a 21-year San Francisco firefighter and president of the San Francisco Black Firefighters Association.
“People of color have known that about DHR. As has anyone who’s been in the city or worked with the city for any length of time.”
Working on the fireboat is, for Thomas, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
“Working on tugboats, pulling ships on and off the pier, I love that work,” he says. “But it’s different when you use your skills to save someone’s life or get someone out of danger. For an engineer here in the bay, the fireboat is the ultimate job.”
It’s a job he now has, though it required a grueling four-year odyssey to be hired. But, in an O. Henry-like twist, now that he’s been hired, he hasn’t been allowed to work.
After four years of attempting to get onto the boat, Thomas was hired in July, 2018, as a relief marine engineer — the boats’ Mr. Scott who toils in the engine room and keeps the motor and systems running.
Relief engineers spell the regular engineers; Lawrence’s predecessor received about 3.5 24-hour shifts a month and cracked $90,000 yearly, per the lawsuit.
But, for Thomas — the first Black marine engineer in city history — the hours have dried up. He has only worked a handful of shifts since his hiring two years ago, and says he has not worked a full shift since January. His earnings from the San Francisco Fire Department are less than what you could pay a paperboy.
Hawkins further says he was told by the fire boat pilot — who purportedly has discretion in such matters — that his pal Thomas “would never get any hours.”
And, lo, that came to pass. But Thomas’ challenges started years before, with a series of bizarre testing and hiring decisions — and equally bizarre declarations by DHR. In writing.
When Thomas in 2014 undertook the exam to work on the fireboat, it was the culmination of a 20-year dream. “I was so excited,” he recalls. “It was just surreal to be doing something I had dreamed about for so many years.”
He had no idea how strange things were about to get.
The test was administered, orally, by a member of the fireboat crew. Thomas says the proceedings were not recorded and there was no paper trail regarding the questions he was asked. He further alleges there was no methodology behind the score he was given — leaving him little recourse when he placed 14th of 17 candidates in a test he felt had not been overly challenging.
Thomas says the 16 other candidates were caucasian.
“I was heartbroken,” he says. “Because I felt I had done pretty well. I wanted some answers as to why I had been given that score. If they had brought out the test and said, ‘Well, here are the mistakes you made,’ I can take that back and say these are the things I need to get better at. But there was none of that.”
Thomas’ confusion only grew when the job went to a candidate who had not fulfilled the posted requirement of having worked as a Marine Engineer for 2,080 hours in the prior two years — which Thomas was certain of, because they worked together for a private tugboat company. And this candidate was a tugboat captain who hadn’t worked as an engineer in more than five years.
When Thomas wrote to the Department of Human Resources to note this, Callahan wrote back.
And she agreed with him.
“You are correct that [the candidate] has not worked in the job of marine engineer for the last two years,” she wrote. But Callahan went on to justify the hire because the candidate had been an engineer in the past — albeit not in the past two years, which was the unambiguous listed requirement. She also stated that he must be qualified, as he snagged the No. 2 ranking on the test — the test, you’ll recall, that was taken orally, administered by the extant fireboat staff, and purportedly scored without a methodology.
That was six years ago, and Thomas and other Black firefighters remain amazed by this interaction.
“If a policeman pulls you over and says, ‘show me your license,’ you can’t say, ‘I don’t have one, but I drive really well,’” Thomas says. He wonders how much larger — and more diverse — a pool of candidates would have applied if they, too, knew they didn’t have to meet the stated qualifications.
“The fact HR doubled down on it — why would they go above and beyond to break the rules for somebody? Not that I would put them in that type of situation, but would they do that for me?”
Tillman doesn’t think so.
“Callahan admitted the person they hired wasn’t qualified. Admitted it! In writing! Can you imagine this being done for an African American person?” He sighs. “This is what the Black worker goes through in San Francisco.”
Hawkins puts it another way: “From the firehouse to the White House.”
The City Attorney’s office told us it will address Hawkins’ and Thomas’ concerns in court. Messages to the Department of Human Resources and Fire Department have not yet been returned.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Angela Alioto, began taking depositions in the case this month. She is also handling a bevy of other discrimination cases against the city, including ones brought by a pair of Sheriff’s Department employees and eight Department of Public Health nurses. Ten Public Works employees are also weighing a suit.
“The corruption in these departments is stunning,” Alioto says. “We haven’t seen the tip of it.”
David Hawkins grew up in Bayview, graduated from Lowell, joined the Navy, and fought in Operation Desert Storm. He was the first Black rescue swimmer in the century-plus history of the San Francisco fire boat.
In June of this year, someone — ostensibly a colleague — vandalized his office, tossing his effects in the trash. By the end of the month, he’d retired, citing “unremitting hostility.”
Several of the photographs adorning this article were taken by Hawkins, from his former window. He still refers to Station 35, on the Embarcadero, as “the best station in the world!”
Thomas, who grew up in and out of homelessness in Oakland, would like to be able to say the same. If he ever gets the chance.
During one of his handful of shifts early on in his SFFD career, the fireboat went out on call after a man tumbled into the Bay.
“To see the firefighters in action and know I had the equipment ready and was in service of someone in danger was amazing,” he says. “The firefighters have been doing this a long time and they went back to doing what they were doing, but for me it was such a rush. I’ve never felt like that.”