The Crusader Newspaper Group

City Hall in hot water

By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader

The allegations are explosive. While Black employees were called “niggers,” bitches and whores, the city did nothing to drain the Chicago Department of Water Management of its alleged vices. Now, a second racial discrimination lawsuit has been filed and once again Mayor Rahm Emanuel and City Hall are in hot water.

Barrett Murphy 350px
Barrett Murphy

Back in May, it was time for Barrett Murphy to go. One of Rahm Emanuel’s politically-connected friends, Murphy was drowning in an email scandal where an investigation revealed that as commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Water Management (CDWM), he failed to discipline an employee who sent racist emails in the workplace.

Randy Conner
Randy Conner

After the city’s Inspector General concluded his investigation, Emanuel showed Murphy the door and replaced him with Randy Conner, a Black man from the South Side who served as first deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation. With more than 20 years with CDOT and the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation, Conner’s hiring, at first, appeared to be the best solution to a big problem that threatens to weaken whatever gains the mayor has made in winning back the trust of the Black community since the Laquan McDonald scandal erupted more than a year ago.

A lawsuit filed on June 29 identified the problem was not just at the top, but included the entire culture of a department that allegedly kept highly-qualified Black employees from advancing to better jobs while intimidating them through verbal and physical attacks.

Those same concerns were expressed by 62-year-old Michael Outley, who, four years ago filed a discrimination lawsuit in federal court accusing the CDWM of discrimination after he was denied promotions allegedly because of his race. His lawsuit named five other African-American assistant chief engineers who passed tests, but were still not promoted.

In the latest lawsuit against the CDWM, attorneys alleged the city knew about the discrimination but did nothing to stop it. Now, Conner and the City of Chicago are among several defendants named in the blistering racial discrimination lawsuit filed on June 29. While Emanuel is not named in the complaint, this latest litigation may sink the mayor’s image after he appointed Barrett Murphy as commissioner of the CDWM a year ago.

The plaintiffs are seven Black employees at the CDWM who said they were forced to work in a hostile work environment, where they were denied promotions, called racial slurs and intimidated with verbal and physical attacks. Even after Emanuel replaced Murphy, concerns and allegations still remain.

In a department that has over 2,100 employees, there are allegations that have surfaced and now threaten to unravel the mayor’s quick-fix solution to a problem that lawyers say has been going on for years at the CDWM.

In hot water once again is the mayor, but as Emanuel and City Hall remain quiet, the seven Black employees are angry and seek punitive and compensatory damages. They say the alleged racial and discriminatory acts resulted in lost wages. Compensatory damages being sought include back pay, benefits and attorney fees.

Attorney William Martin
Attorney William Martin

With an estimated 50 to 500 Blacks employed in the CDWM, the lawsuit seeks class-action status and was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois Eastern Division. In addition to Conner and the City of Chicago, the defendants also include Murphy and four high-level employees in the CDWM. Attorneys William C. Martin and Rebecca Kaiser are representing the plaintiffs.

The Crusader obtained a copy of the lawsuit.

According to the complaint, many of the plaintiffs remain employed and still are subjected to discriminatory treatment within the department. They are employees who remain in good standing and some are highly-skilled, well-educated employees with advanced college degrees. Among 2,104 employees, they still work at various locations with the CDWM, which includes 11 pumping stations and two filtration plants.

The plaintiffs include: Derrick Edmond, an operating engineer; Katherine Ealy, 50, an acting chief operating engineer; Craig Robinson, 41, an engineer; Eddie Cooper Jr., 53, a water chemist; Vicki Hill, 52, a former staff assistant, who was fired in 2015 after 32 years at CDWM; Robert T. Laws, Jr., laborer; and Adebola Fegbemi, 55, former environmental engineer.

All plaintiffs alleged they were subjected to repeated acts of discrimination in a verbally abusive workplace that gave preferential treatment to white employees. According to the complaints, Black employees are subjected to “unwelcome racially-charged conduct,” assigned less desirable shifts, denied training opportunities, harassed based on race, intimidated and denied overtime.

Within the suit, it stated, “Black employees are intentionally blocked by a ‘Glass Ceiling,’ a transparent barrier of deliberate racism obstructing the opportunities of the upward movement and advancement afforded to non-Black employees of the Department.”

While the suit allege Caucasians are promoted at a higher rate than Black employees, the complaint stated, “The Department has created an employment scheme that requires Black employees to work three times as long as their Caucasian counterparts in order to receive a promotion.”

The complaint also alleged that leadership at the CDWM “deliberately leave job transfers open and unfilled until a hand-picked Caucasian candidate is available.”

One of the plaintiffs, Edmond, said he consistently applied for promotions, but was denied despite successfully passing the prerequisite examinations. In the complaint, Edmond said he was denied promotion and transfer opportunities because of his race.

In the workplace, Edmond said he was harassed regularly and has been called a “nigger” and referred to as “you people” consistently in the CDWM. According to the complaint, Edmond has been forced to request early retirement rather than “continue to endure the daily hostile work environment.”

Another plaintiff, Ealy, said she was also denied promotions and transfer opportunities and was called a “fu—– whore and a bitch.”

Hill, also a plaintiff, worked at the CDWM from 1983 to 2015, said she was “deliberately forced to retire six months short of receiving the maximum amount on her pension.”

The complaint also alleged that “The City of Chicago has failed to properly train, supervise and discipline their Commissioners, which has therefore given them comfort and sense that they can violate the civil rights of others and not be disciplined. As a result of the customs, policies and practices of the City of Chicago, the unlawful discrimination committed against the Plaintiffs went uninvestigated and undisciplined.”

The Crusader was unable to reach the mayor at press time on Wednesday, July 5. An email to his office was not returned.





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