The Laborers Local 261 and named plaintiffs Juan Rivera and Theresa Foglio-Ramierez today filed suit against the city of San Francisco, alleging that its workers were retaliated against after union members complained of rampant city corruption and favoritism.
The papers filed today allege that the retaliation took the form of denying workers proper working conditions and in the case of some, harassment and demotions.
These complaints were directed against the leadership of the Public Utilities Commission, San Francisco Public Works and City Administrator’s Office. Former PUC general manager Harlan Kelly and Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru have since been arrested and charged by the feds, with Nuru pleading guilty. Former City Administrator Naomi Kelly, Harlan’s wife, has resigned.
The suit alleges that workforce development programs were co-opted to hire friends of management to jobs they did not perform. Instead, the lawsuit charges, the work was actually performed by nonprofit workers and paid with public funds, which circumvented “the MOU which provided for minimum labor standards.”
The suit also accuses since-departed PUC manager Juliet Ellis of directing funds to favored nonprofits via the PUC’s community benefits program, which the lawsuit refers to as a $34.2 million “slush fund.”
While Supervisor Gordon Mar called for an audit of the community benefits program in 2019, that audit wasn’t completed until December, 2021. It found spectacular mismanagement within the program, but notably did not address prior bombshell allegations that the Community Benefits Program is a de facto slush fund. The latter was previously outlined in media reports and reiterated in today’s suit.
In return for its complaints, the suit alleges that Local 261 workers were punished by not being provided “with safe and sanitary facilities to perform basic hygiene and to take breaks” during the pandemic. When the union complained in 2021 to the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration about work conditions, it claims Public Works leadership pulled out of planned meetings in retaliation.
The suit further alleges that the city “opened the contracts of most, if not all other bargaining units during the pandemic and negotiated enhancements to their contracts, but not to Local 261’s contract.”
Named plaintiffs Rivera and Foglio-Ramirez claim to have been individually demoted and harassed. Rivera was dropped two pay levels in August 2021, at a cost of some $40,000 yearly. The suit quotes Rivera’s supervisor as stating, “I don’t know why I am doing this. You have stepped it up a lot as Supervisor 2. You have helped out a lot.”
The lawsuit quotes various Public Works managers chalking up the demotion to “your union.” When he filed a confidential tort claim with the city, Rivera claims to have received an anonymous text message stating “Snitchin won’t get you anywhere you only made a fool of yourself.”
Foglio-Ramirez says that she was targeted by Naomi Kelly for termination and “scolded” for the federal investigations and indictments that came in the wake of her complaints. She also alleges that GPS data has subsequently been requested by city officials to monitor the whereabouts of union employees.
The lawsuit is being handled by the office of Angela Alioto. It calls for injunctive relief of the purportedly unsanitary conditions workers have been subjected to, a fulfillment of Local 261’s public record requests, fees and “actual damages subject to proof at trial.”
Messages sent to the PUC have not yet been returned. A spokeswoman for Public Works stated that, “We are not going to comment on specific allegations that are under active litigation, but to be abundantly clear: San Francisco Public Works does not retaliate nor discriminate against our employees.”
A communique from the City Administrator declined to comment on active litigation: “The City Administrator’s Office prioritizes the health and safety needs of our employees and does not allow or tolerate any retaliation or discrimination.”
The City Attorney’s office wrote that “The City is committed to rooting out corruption wherever it exists. Once we are served with the complaint, we will review it and respond in court.”