Black city employees claim discrimination
Dennis Mars (right) speaks to the crowd about the discrimination he has faced while working at the Department of Public Health. Photo by Juan Carlos Lara at a protest for the Black Employee Alliance and Coalition Against Anti-Blackness on Oct. 2, 2020.

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. 

“Ms. Williams found a note that said: Alicia the monkey, the black monkey.”

Case no. cgc-20-588012

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.

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.”

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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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  1. London Breed (Mayor) is NOT part of the solution. She is part of the problem. Case and point: She passed a Proposition 209 hiring policy in 2018. While President on the SF Board of Supervisors. Which, discriminates against EVERY SINGLE (ALL) racial group of Internal employee Candidates over 40 years old. Who may be Veterans, Disabled, etc. This implemented a hiring policy only for new hires. No promotional hires from within SF. Ironically, San Francisco now only seeks to resolve discrimination against those who are African American like the Mayor. Does this sound like Justice? I dont think so..London is bad news for all San Franciscans. San Francisco has a duty to defend ALL Internal employees over 40 years old from discrimination. Not just African-American employees from an African-American Mayor at fault. Media isnt reporting the whole story.What a cover-up..

  2. It isn’t ironic. It’s obvious. We have an African-American Mayor in San Francisco. Who presided, as President in the SF Board of Supervisors. Who privately passed proposition 209 hiring practices in 2018. While publically claiming to support the losing proposition 16 opposite of Affirmative Action in 2020. During a time we have rank and file African-Americans from SEIU 1021 serving on Joint Appreticeship hiring committees. Where many promotional hires in question have been discriminatory to different groups of Internal Candidates from various backgrounds. Which also includes groups of Bi-racial, Hispanics, and Asian, Candidates. However, those in positions to make the difference better can only complain about discrimination for their own racial African-American constituency? In, which they participated in the hiring process or lack there of. Insteaf of trying to protect all groups from discrimination? Something smells fishy in San Francisco..

  3. The Labor Union, SEIU 1021 is liable for not protecting all SF employees (SEIU 1021 members) from discrimination. As, well as SF. Now, the Mayor’s office, SEIU 1021, EEO, and the Black Alliance are selectively choosing to defend only one group it failed (African-American). After ignoring the other groups it still failed. For example, a non African-American case claiming the first Discrimination act one day before Micki Callahan’s resignation. During a time when 130 Nurses were hired. Many were African-American hires. While the non African-American highly qualified internal candidate was ignored. Unfortunately, the Union (SEIU 1021) and Black Alliance (made of Union members) has been partial. Instead of defending ALL members from Discrimination. Even, in some cases, presiding on hiring Committees committing the discrimination. A recent pie chart revealed the least group promoted were Bi-racial. Giving selective access (equity) without equality.

  4. In reality, Citizens vs. United has established a Labor Union (1021) more concerned with being a Political Active Committee (PAC) than protecting employees from discrimination. While looking the other way, and signing off with San Francisco on policies denying internal applicant promotions to contain retirement costs. Thereby, committing age-discrimination against senior employees, and disabled employees by de-identification in promotional hiring Who happen to be Latino, and African-American. However, labor union activists, high ranking 1021 Union Reps, and Mayor’s office choose only to focus on African-American cases. Since each entity is primarily African-American. This type of corruption has been going on since 2018. Bureaucrats have failed to address the corruption.

  5. The use of DHR Investigations to punish the black employees is rampant. If a black employee reports anything to DHR it is overlooked, then the black employee is subjected to retaliation and harassment through bogus DHR investigations

  6. Why have the municipal unions not been more active in protecting and promoting the interests of these employees? Are the unions white-dominated too?

  7. I complained about this in 2007, MTA assigns black employees to acting management positions on temporary basis, then schedules interviews and hires less experienced white or gay employees to management positions over black employees and then assigns the black employees to bring newly appointed middle managers up to par!
    I hope they’re successful in winning their cases…

  8. So after 25 years of elected Mayors of Color with but one cishet white male Mayor, including two Black mayors, ample Black department heads, some still unindicted and not pled guilty, and yet the City stands accused of racist employment practices.

    San Francisco is so ahead of the curve. We know from historical experience that there is more to it than just putting faces that look like the community into power.

    What we get from the purely representational approach is ambitious hacks like Jacobo whose posse opportunistically whined RACISM when they decided that the gerund “pimping” was anti-Latinx while the same crowd came to Ronen’s aid when she performed white supremacy against young POC organizers of DefundSFPDNow.

    Marginal misinterpretations of language are a show stopper, while a powerful white woman who purchased an expensive home in the most expensive neighborhood in the city at the top of the market while raising two expensive children on two public sector salaries gets a pass because she has something the ambitious operators want.

    Arguably, this devaluing the currency of equality by compensated, compromised ultimately corrupt transactional operators of color, furthers white supremacy.