The office sits on 18th Street beside two garages where about 130 equipment operators and laborers -- most of them men -- punch clocks at 7 each morning before jumping into city trucks and heading out to repair water-main ruptures, fire hydrants and valves. Inside the office, a dozen more employees -- most of them women -- handle administrative tasks such as payroll and typing.
After years of unprofessional banter among these employees, the office has landed the city in a legal wrestling match in federal court. But no one should be surprised: Discrimination watchdogs at all levels of government -- local, state and federal -- have sought changes in the office for years.
Now taxpayers will be paying for the city's tardiness in responding to the complaints spewing from that office. A black former clerk, Jennifer Love, whose federal lawsuit filed in January charged that she was offended by racist jokes and comments from her white supervisor, arrived at a tentative settlement with the city in March for $50,000. But long before that settlement, in June 2001, Love's coworkers testified in a personnel hearing that Love regularly used racist terms such as "nigger," "ghetto girl" and "white trash" in the office, cursed and laughed at racist jokes -- but was not reprimanded for it.
The white supervisor, Willa Russell, who filed her own federal lawsuit in March, says the city cracked down too hard on her and discriminated against her by transferring and demoting her for conduct that went unpunished among male and black employees. Love, she says, was one of the worst offenders.
Love's federal complaint charged that Willa Russell once laughingly asked whether any members of Love's family had ever picked cotton. The boss then allegedly remarked that her own ancestors had kept slaves but claimed that she was not "prejudiced."
Love's complaint also alleged that Russell referred to the East Side neighborhood where Love lives as "the ghetto" and asked Love whether she knew that the radio station 103.3's call letters, KPRS, stood for "Kolored People's Radio Station." On another occasion, according to Love's suit, Russell spoke of seeing a black person wearing "those sagging pants" and asked whether Love's son wore them too.
The complaint also alleged that while the staff watched a video that showed children playing in water from a fire hydrant, Russell said -- in front of Love and a Hispanic employee -- that a fire hydrant was a public swimming pool for "Mexicans." The lawsuit alleged that Russell said, "That's just like a Mexican. That's the only time they get to take a bath."
Russell's attorney does not say what Russell's exact words were. According to the transcript of the human resources department's June 2001 personnel hearing, Rita Hernandez, the Hispanic employee who was present, said she was not offended by Russell's remarks and that she felt Russell was "joking." But Hernandez did feel Russell's behavior was out of hand in her treatment of Hernandez's husband when he came to pick up his wife from work every day. Hernandez testified that Russell flirted with him, touched him and made comments about his good looks as Love and other women joined in. Hernandez became so upset that she arranged a different afternoon meeting place.
Regarding the conversation about picking cotton, Russell's attorney says it was "completely taken out of context" in Love's lawsuit and that "Willa Russell was explaining that her own ancestors had actually picked cotton, I believe in Arkansas."
Russell also reportedly called Billi Recar, an openly gay employee, "Sissy Boy." Recar testified in the personnel hearing that he was not offended and that nearly everyone in the office -- including Love -- used that nickname for him. But testimony also alleges that Recar regularly offended Hernandez by babbling loudly in mock Spanish; he was never reprimanded by supervisors.
"The city just did too little too late," Love's attorney, Mark Buchanan, says.
Russell, whose attorney says she is suing for "reverse discrimination," complains that the city demoted her, cut her pay and transferred her to a different office within the water services department for swearing and making racial jokes, though men and minority employees regularly made similar jokes without suffering professional consequences.
Russell's attorney, Jeffrey Bruce, also says that the city's Equal Employment Opportunity office conducted a shoddy investigation of Love's allegations because it is "biased against whites." The EEO office referred the Pitch to the city attorney's office, which declined comment.
One finding from the city's EEO office that neither woman disputes is that the culture inside the pipeline office was far from professional. Russell's attorney claims that when Russell was interviewed for her position there, she was warned by a city official about the routine profanity and was asked whether "she could handle it."
Mary Lappin, an assistant director of the Water Services Department, put it more harshly when she testified before the personnel committee. After collaborating with human resources to interview pipeline employees and seeing two women burst into tears almost immediately when she asked about the problems at the office, she concluded that "what [the department] had could only be described as a toxic work environment out there -- in terms of people's emotions and self-esteem and everything else. I was dismayed at the poor supervision that was going on." The collaborative report concluded that supervisors further up the chain of command -- including Russell's boss, James Williams, and his boss, Richard Davis -- were aware of the problem. Pipeline employees also testified that they heard both male bosses regularly use the terms "fuck" and "bitch" in the office.
The EEO investigator wrote a letter to Love in January 2001 stating that, in the pipeline office, both the "use of inappropriate language" and "the use of slurs, epithets and jokes based on race, ethnicity and sexual orientation" are "commonplace and tolerated."
Love's lawsuit alleged that when Love had complained to Williams, Russell's supervisor, he told her, "Oh, she's been doing this forever." The lawsuit claimed that Williams then had Love repeat her complaint to his supervisor, Davis, who responded, "I believe you, because I know Willa." Davis, the manager of the pipeline office, would not talk to the Pitch about any matters related to the lawsuit.
Despite Love's requests for help, she alleged that the harassment continued, becoming physical when Russell pushed Love out of her way, then grabbed Love around the neck as if to put her in a headlock. However, another employee who was present testified that the "headlock" was friendly, "more like a hug." Two weeks later, Love filed a formal complaint with the city's Division of Labor and Employee Relations.
Pipeline coworkers testified that after Love filed the complaint, she became outspoken and tried to coerce them into filing complaints, threatening them with bodily harm if they did not testify favorably toward Love. (Hernandez filed an internal complaint, but only because of Love's threats, she testified.) Hernandez said she transferred out of the office because she was afraid of Love.
The city had plenty of opportunities to avoid the whole mess by cleaning up the pipeline office long before Love started working there. At least two other pipeline office employees had previously filed complaints with the city, investigators found. And Richard Davis testified at the personnel hearing that his knowledge of Russell's penchant for racist jokes went back five years (before he was a supervisor) to a lunch he and two other employees shared with her. There, Davis said, she made an offensive joke about a black trash collector.
After the human resources department advised supervisors to do something about Russell, they transferred her to another water department office. But the city did not punish Williams or Davis for their failure to address the serious problems in the office -- or for their own use of offensive language.
Love also complained to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which issued a finding that racist remarks "were a regular feature of the office environment" in the pipeline department and that "the vast majority of the pejorative comments were based upon the race or national origin of the staff member."
The EEOC found "compelling evidence ... that management was aware of the supervisor's inappropriate conduct well before [Love] complained but failed to take appropriate action to ... eliminate the problem" and that "although two different managers had personal knowledge regarding the supervisor's use of racial epithets, at no time was the supervisor disciplined." The water department also disregarded recommendations made by the city's Division of Labor and Employee Relations regarding the two previous complaints against Russell, the EEOC ruled.
But Russell's attorney says she appealed the findings that led to her demotion and that the personnel board found Love's allegations to be partly without merit. The panel restored Russell's pay to its previous level but refused to reinstate her to her supervisory job in the pipeline office.
Russell's attorney says the EEOC did not interview Russell before issuing its report. The city attorney's office refused to comment on the case.
"What happened here is, the city has got itself in a quandary," Bruce says.