Three Black city employees have filed a class action lawsuit in San Francisco’s Superior Court on behalf of “all union and non-union Black employees” working for city departments. The lawsuit alleges that city practices violated anti-discrimination work policies and led to unequal pay, denied promotions, harassment, and excessive disciplinary actions for Black workers.
The plaintiffs, Keka Robinson-Luqman, Alicia Williams, and John Hill, are asking for all wages and promotion opportunities lost as a result of the violations. In addition, they seek the ability to develop and oversee new anti-discrimination policies that the city must enact.
The plaintiff’s attorneys intend to add as many as 4,000 San Francisco Black employees to the suit, said Felicia Medina, one of the lawyers.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of a Department of Human Resources scandal in which a department employee forged documents promising a Black muni worker Kathy Broussard nearly $514,000 in a settlement that was never delivered. The incident reignited complaints and protest from the Black Employee Alliance and Coalition Against Anti-Blackness this October.
“This has gone on for far too long,” Medina said. “We supposedly live in a progressive city, but [the city] is so far from being a meritocracy and having equal employment opportunities.”
City Attorney spokesman John Coté said in a statement to Mission Local, “The City takes equal-employment issues very seriously, and is committed to fostering a welcoming workplace free of discrimination or harassment.”
Fueling the lawsuit’s allegations are employment data from the city’s Department of Human Resources that reveal wide disparities between Black employees and those of other races.
For example, the lawsuit references DHR data and alleges that “regardless of appointment type, the City pays white employees more than any other ethnic group and $15.31 more per hour, or $32,000 more per year, compared to Black” employees.
It also alleges that Black workers are disciplined “at rates much higher than their non-Black colleagues” and receive the highest amount of corrective actions when compared to any other racial group. DHR reports referenced in the document show that the city has nearly double the amount of white city workers than Black workers. However, Black employees received nearly twice as many corrective actions than their white counterparts — 37 percent for Black employees, and 19 percent for white employees.
Homing in on the three departments that hire nearly half of all Black city employees — the Municipal Transportation Agency, the Department of Public Health, and the Department of Public Works — data shows these departments receive 65 percent of all of San Francisco’s corrective actions. The named plaintiffs, Robinson-Luqman, Williams, and Hill, work for each of those departments, respectively.
White city workers are also more than twice as likely to get promoted than Black ones, while Black employees are more than twice as likely to “be released” than promoted, according to DHR reports referred to in the document.
These assertions are far too familiar, according to Robinson-Luqman’s, Williams’s and Hill’s personal accounts in the lawsuit. In 2012, Williams, who works as a Department of Public Health licensed vocational nurse, said that despite filing a complaint alleging harassment from her manager, no action followed. Instead, her manager fired her for alleged “insubordination” and for throwing a computer tower “in a fit of rage,” incidents which Williams say did not happen according to the lawsuit. The firing left Williams out of work until 2014, when “an arbitrator found that her managers were ‘racially tinged’ and reinstated her, the lawsuit states.
Back at work at the Lagunda Honda wellness facility this year, Williams found a note that called her “the monkey, black monkey,” her account states.
Robinson-Luqman, an MTA employee, says in the court documents that she, too, faced racist remarks from her supervisor, who had purportedly said the office “used to do things like hang nooses,” and emailed her in “stereotypical language” apparently reserved only for Black underlings. For example, her manager wrote that a flight was “mo’ betta” and she witnessed a “girlfriend;” when Robinson-Luqman her manager called her two-year-old daughter “miss thing,” which Robinson-Luqman perceives as a “Black girl attitude” stereotype.
Later, Robinson-Luqman told her manager she felt she was being stereotyped as an “angry Black woman” after receiving a performance review in 2020 that described her facial expressions as making others “uncomfortable,” the lawsuit states. Allegedly, her manager said this statement caused her to “reconsider” giving Robinson-Luqman the role as “Assistant Board Secretary.”
The SFMTA told Mission Local in a statement that it “has long made a commitment to equity as a core tenet of our values, culture, and institutional practices. The agency takes seriously its significant responsibility to its almost 6,000 employees to have a workplace free from bias and discrimination.” In addition to years of bias and racial equity training, the agency will form a new office of Race, Equity & Inclusion, and implement its first Racial Equity Action Plan, its spokesperson added. These steps reflect the agency’s proactive strategies against workplace bias, aiming to create an inclusive and equitable environment for all employees.
Robinson-Luqman’s complaint, from February 2020, ended up with the now-disgraced and former DHR Manager Rebecca Sherman, who acknowledged this year that she forged texts, signatures, and agreements for the $514,000 settlement promised to Broussard, a Black female Muni employee.
Robinson-Luqman’s complaint has been transferred to another office, and to date has not yet been acted upon, the suit said. The lawyer representing Broussard, Therese Cannata, is also attached to this lawsuit.
Separate and apart from the Sherman affair, this lawsuit highlights a dearth of outcomes from the Department of Human Resources’ Equal Employment Opportunity office. In 2019, 579 complaints were filed. Five were sustained — a 0.86 percent rate. Black workers filed one-third of those complaints, despite only comprising one-sixth of the city’s workforce.
The third plaintiff, John Hill, who works at the Water Department of the Public Utilities Commission, also raised complaints about racial discrimination to an official — then PUC Chief Harland Kelly, who recently resigned after being charged in a corruption scandal.
After years of allegedly being passed over for promotions and suffering a demotion despite Hill’s qualifications, Hill reported his frustrations to Kelly in 2019. Kelly “acknowledged what he called a ‘lack of diversity promotions’ in the department due to personal connections,” the lawsuit states. Kelly was on Nov. 30 charged for purportedly accepting bribes related to the federal investigation of Mohammed Nuru, the former director of the Department of Public Works.
The Public Utilities Commission and Department of Public Health have not yet responded to requests for comment. This article will be updated if and when they do.
Medina said that next steps for the lawsuit are likely in the next few weeks. In the meanwhile, she expects more people to step up to join the class-action suit, a classification which she feels is best to address “systemic racism.”
“Overall we are feeling confident in our collective power to enact change,” Medina said. “At some point there has to be a straw that breaks the camel’s back.”