Cedric Jackson (left) and Dante King address the crowd in front of City Hall during an Oct. 2 rally held by Black city workers. Photo by Juan Carlos Lara

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.  

An exhibit from the suit

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.”

See also: Black firefighters' discrimination suit takes on new light...

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.”  

Another exhibit from the suit

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. 

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Joe Eskenazi

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. “Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior...

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14 Comments

  1. Maybe if we had an aggressive City Attorney who tried to enforce provisions of city labor contracts and of civil service provisions?
    Maybe if major media had ongoing willingness to boldly take on the entrenched pols.?

    1. I was proclaimed a Great American by… one who should know… for reporting Dennis Herrera to the Ca Bar Association for acting as a Mob Lawyer. The case didn’t stick as I am a scientist not a lawyer, it was a first step. The Bar seemed rather interested though. Any takers?

  2. One question that is not addressed is: where are the City’s labor unions in all this? From Transit Workers to Municipal Executives, why are they not in there representing and defending these employees?

    Are there in existence for the sole purpose of bumping the yearly budget by 10% per annum?

    1. I had the same experience working for the NPS. Passed over for promotions. Made to do higher work I was not paid the proper wage for. Repremanded for things I had not done. And ignored by HR and THE LABOR UNION. Until I recorded the abuse on tape and threatened to go public with it ,did I finally get results. Ip till then they allowed the abuse hoping I would quit. The Unions are just as currupt.

  3. Yes. I feel I have experienced much of what was stated. Because of retaliation, I would ask to remain anonymous; sadly, anonymous like I am sure many who have not reported such experiences prefer to remain. It is such a helpless feeling especially when your financial survival depends on your job.

  4. Sanfrancisco has never been fair in employment when it comes to African Americans,or anything else, nothing new.

  5. Not sure if it means Blacks should be disciplined less, or rather that Whites should be disciplined more. Honestly, I don’t know what information should be taken from that statistic in order to arrive at a meaningful conclusion.

  6. I work in a city department and regularly notice that young, less experienced, often white employees get promoted to positions (without a public application process) or are just given more important work, while Black and Latinx employees, many times with more experience, do not. It’s pretty gross. This is coming from a white dude btw.

  7. This article is A-typical of what Black employees, especially Black Males, are living every single day in their employment positions in the City and County of San Francisco. There is a culture of systemic/internalized racism city wide.

    1. Jeanette —

      The time period is a good question. I am not certain. As one of the name plaintiffs is a DPH employee, I have to guess YES.

      JE

  8. I have worked for the city for many years and have been on plenty of interviews where the interview panels are all other races was I qualified for the job yes did I get the job no all because of the color of my skin or lack of being able to speak another language. They say they have new systems in order to prevent these things from happening I have yet to see it. It’s a joke and so is the union they just taking our money and do nothing.

    1. Every time I was on a SFPUC interview panel I raised an ethical complaint. They finally stopped asking me. On one panel an older woman that was a Certified Plant Operator and Masters Graduate was rejected by the other two on the panel for the Managers favorite, a twentyish City Hall Fellow. It is actually policy that if a panelist disagrees with the other two they have to force you to change your mind. In another instance, (another that I reported to the Ethics Commission, har har), I was on a panel to hire two people. The AGM’s namesake was given one position and another crony was clearly given the answers, because he gave answers with the same typographical errors that the answer key had. At any rate, the City residents and even the folks that buy a cup of coffee or flush a toilet with SFPUC water are subsidizing an agency that holds them in contempt and cheats brilliant public servants out of jobs and gives them to in-laws and cronies. I need to do a TED talk.

  9. The standard statistical bafflegab used here. Just because a group represents a certain percentage of the overall population doesn’t mean everything related that populationnbreaks down by those numbers. Why are Asians under represented in the NBA yet over represented in universities? If you want to discuss disciplinary action taken then the statistical population is those that break the rules. At that point you can start comparing the punishments handed down and determine discrepancies, but to use the general population as your starting gpoint is incorrect.

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