San Francisco is a city with more money than introspection.
You can see it on display every week, on every Board of Supervisors meeting agenda. Lawsuit after lawsuit settles for tens of thousands of dollars, hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more. Money changes hands, no wrongdoing is admitted to, and the transaction is sealed. Again and again.
It is, after all, easier to cut a check and move on rather than confront and undo generations of systemic inequality and mistreatment. Especially if doing so would require the services of a functional HR department — which this city markedly does not have.
Well before the shocking September revelation that an HR manager allegedly concocted a bogus $514,000 settlement for an aggrieved Black female MTA employee — forging the signatures on it following a concatenation of bizarre lies and deceptions — San Francisco’s Black workers had learned that the city’s HR Department was not looking out for their best interests.
Rather, it was perceived as a place meant to stall and water down allegations of racial wrongdoing. “They’re more in the practice of putting your complaint away rather than investigating what it really is,” said Sherman Tillman, a longtime city firefighter and the president of the Black Firefighters Association. “People of color have known that about DHR.”
Multiple city HR professionals told Mission Local that the Department of Human Resources had even edited racial elements out of complaints they had submitted — reducing workers who’d claimed racial abuse or discrimination to mere disgruntled employees with “work assignment issues.”
“I can think of many times where we’d do an investigation, turn in a report, and they’d sit on it for a really long time and then send it back with instructions to edit it,” said one departmental HR manager. “If it’s leaning against the city, it would have to be rewritten and resubmitted to DHR before they accept it.”
Little wonder, then, that workers’ complaints are so infrequently affirmed. In 2019, 579 formal Equal Employment Opportunity complaints were submitted to the Department of Human Resources.
Five were sustained. That’s 0.86 percent.
Those are just mind-boggling numbers. Rather, as that litany of settlements clogging up every Board of Supervisors agenda illustrates, the means for redress lies not within the city’s system but outside of it — with the legal system.
Achieving an equitable workplace in San Francisco appears to require the same.
Perhaps inevitably, a trio of Black city employees last week filed a class-action suit against the city on behalf of San Francisco’s roughly 4,000 Black workers, alleging a “pattern or practice” of racial discrimination.
The greatest indicator of that “pattern or practice” may be how banal the experiences recounted by the three named plaintiffs feel to Black city workers: Microaggressions, lack of promotions, being forced to work out-of-classification for no additional pay; discrepancies in treatment from non-Black employees; and overt oral and written racial abuse.
That banality attests to this case’s strength.
“I read through these allegations, and there’s nothing surprising or ‘Oh my God!’” says Jumoke Akin-Taylor, a project manager at San Francisco Public Works and a member of the city’s Black Employees Alliance.
“It’s almost basic. I have not come across a Black employee in San Francisco who does not have this as part of their story: Passed over for a promotion; working out of classification; working at a lower rate than counterparts — it’s something very, very common to Black people. So, I was not surprised.”
And, as detailed within the suit, these allegations are not merely anecdotal. The city’s own statistics reveal that Black workers are paid less, promoted less often, and disciplined more. To wit:
- Black workers compose 7 percent of Airport employees but receive 38 percent of the disciplinary actions;
- Black workers compose 8 percent of Public Utilities Commission employees but receive 31 percent of the disciplinary actions;
- Black workers compose 30 percent of Municipal Transportation Agency employees but receive 51 percent of the disciplinary actions.
The city has done a great job compiling these statistics. It has not, however, remedied them. And, as a result, it is being sued.
“The strength and importance of this case is that it is systemic,” says Tristin Green, a law professor at USF specializing in employment and discrimination law. “Sometimes you need the law to trigger a closer look at what’s going on and begin conversations about structural solutions.”
Adds David Oppenheimer, a Berkeley law professor and the director of the Berkeley Center on Comparative Equality & Anti-Discrimination Law, “It’s great the city reported the data it reported. Whether that was entirely voluntary or compelled by some legal process, I am not sure. But it made it clear that there is a problem.”
“When one person gets disciplined or one one person does not get promoted, it can be very hard to reach a conclusion why, in any individual case, an action was taken,” he continues. “But when you start looking at systems instead of simply looking at individuals — things become clear.”
It’s also clear that a goodly portion of this fine mess traces back to the dysfunctional, even counterproductive, actions of the city’s Department of Human Resources, which oversees this city’s tens of thousands of employees, who earn billions of dollars yearly.
The disproportionate discipline meted out against Black workers is a hallmark of a decentralized system lacking consistent rules or standards, in which individual managers — who may or may not be operating with overt or implicit bias — are left to do as they please.
That shouldn’t be happening; you have a centralized Department of Human Resources to prevent exactly that sort of thing. But departmental HR professionals tell me the centralized DHR office has markedly sidestepped taking responsibility here.
“DHR sets extremely vague policy,” one told me. “You just can’t get a straight answer. Whenever I go to DHR, it becomes ‘Who’s on First?’”
But this is, again, not surprising. Dante King is a co-founder of the Black Employees Alliance and the director of workforce equity at the Department of Public Health. Prior to that he was an acting ombudsman at the Municipal Transportation Agency — and an HR manager at DHR.
As such, he’s consulted with dozens of departments and met with hundreds of employees. He saw situations in which Black employees were fired or even arrested for violations where white colleagues were lightly punished — or not punished at all.
King is familiar with the city’s overarching statistics — but also with the individuals whose plights generate those statistics. He tried to fix this problem. But he says his suggestions were brushed aside.
“I developed rubrics and scales to try to bring some consistency around how disciplinary actions were being levied based on conduct and performance measures,” King says. “None of them were implemented.”
And that’s because San Francisco has more money than introspection.
But maybe that’ll change. Whether due to this class-action suit, a forthcoming fiscal nightmare — or a bit of both.