‘In­ept get pro­moted, . . . ca­pa­ble get buried’

Metro de­railed by cul­ture of com­pla­cence, in­com­pe­tence, lack of di­ver­sity

The Washington Times Daily - - Front Page - BY LUKE ROSIAK

Ninety-seven per­cent of the bus and train op­er­a­tors at the Washington Met­ro­pol­i­tan Area Tran­sit Au­thor­ity are black, with only six white women out of more than 3,000 driv­ers, ac­cord­ing to Metro doc­u­ments — a lack of di­ver­sity at one of the re­gion’s largest em­ploy­ers that has led to an ac­knowl­edg­ment of fail­ure in af­fir­ma­tive-ac­tion doc­u­ments and spawned a se­ries of law­suits.

The ho­mo­gene­ity, in­ter­views with dozens of cur­rent and for­mer Metro work­ers in­di­cated, is a proxy to a clubby cul­ture of fa­voritism in which merit has lit­tle to do with pro­mo­tions, and ac­count­abil­ity, such as not­ing safety vi­o­la­tions, is a ca­reer death knell. In typ­i­cal ex­am­ples, court and Metro records show, a black man who spent eight years in prison for deal­ing PCP was pro­moted to a high-level man­age­ment po­si­tion soon af­ter his re­lease, and whites in the same po­si­tions as blacks with far less se­nior­ity are in­ex­pli­ca­bly paid less.

With Metro’s bud­get chron­i­cally strained and re­ports of mis­man­age­ment com­ing more reg­u­larly than trains, in­ter­views and in­ter­nal records de­pict a likely root: an en­vi­ron­ment in which hard­work­ing em­ploy­ees are ac­tively ex­cluded and those who rise are those will­ing to do the bare min­i­mum — never caus­ing a stir by flag­ging ram­pant safety vi­o­la­tions, re­port­ing malfea­sance or propos­ing im­prove­ments.

“When the ac­ci­dent [that killed nine peo­ple] hap­pened in 2009, I called a su­per­vi­sor and said, ‘Is this the one we all dreaded?’ The way work­ers do their jobs, we all knew it was a mat­ter of time. . . . The in­ept get pro­moted, and the ca­pa­ble get buried. Smart peo­ple were put in the corner, os­tra­cized and given noth­ing to do,” said Chris­tine Townsend, who sued Metro for dis­crim­i­na­tion and won.

It is a cul­ture in which a white male en­gi­neer near com­ple­tion of a doc­tor­ate was passed over for a man­age­ment po­si­tion in fa­vor of a black man who was barely lit­er­ate, mul­ti­ple staffers said.

“The av­er­age rider wouldn’t be­lieve the things that go on. There are so many easy things we could do to make the sys­tem bet­ter,” a sta­tion man­ager said. “But they’d never put me in charge be­cause they know I’d make sure oth­ers ac­tu­ally did their jobs. They don’t want change. It’s go along to get along.”

Metro is a quasi-public agency that re­ceives fund­ing from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, Mary­land, Virginia and lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions to op­er­ate a re­gional bus and rail trans­porta­tion sys­tem, but it is not be­holden to rules that ap­ply to fully gov­ern­men­tal en­ti­ties. With a $2.5 bil­lion op­er­at­ing and cap­i­tal bud­get for fis­cal 2012, Metro­rail serves 86 sta­tions and has 106 miles of track, while Metrobus serves the na­tion’s cap­i­tal with 1,500 buses.

Metro’s af­fir­ma­tive-ac­tion plan notes that the 1.4 per­cent of its bus and train op­er­a­tors who are His­panic and the 25 per­cent who are fe­male of any race are “less than rea­son­ably ex­pected.” It does not make note of the 1.5 per­cent who are white.

Even in en­try-level oc­cu­pa­tions typ­i­cally dom­i­nated by His­pan­ics, there are vir­tu­ally none at Metro. Only one la­borer out of 67 is His­panic; of 540 land­scap­ers, car­pen­ters and clean­ers, only 22 are His­panic. In the na­tional cap­i­tal re­gion, His­pan­ics make up 13 per­cent of adults and blacks com­prise 25 per­cent; white women con­sti­tute 29 per­cent.

“The odds of such a dis­par­ity oc­cur­ring by chance are sta­tis­ti­cally in­fin­i­tes­i­mal,” Ron­ald A. Sch­midt, an at­tor­ney rep­re­sent­ing 12 white women ex­plor­ing a class-ac­tion law­suit, wrote in a 2003 let­ter. “There ap­pears to be an en­trenched net­work of AfricanAmer­i­can em­ploy­ees at WMATA that is able to steer jobs, pro­mo­tion, train­ing and other ca­reer en­hanc­ing ben­e­fit to per­sons of their own racial or eth­nic group.”

The av­er­age Metro worker had a $60,000 salary, which rises to $69,000 in­clud­ing over­time. That is more than 71 per­cent of area res­i­dents who had an in­come in 2010, in­clud­ing 62 per­cent of whites, cen­sus records show.

No re­course

White and His­panic em­ploy­ees who al­lege dis­crim­i­na­tion have found a deaf ear at Metro’s civil rights of­fice, whose 17 em­ploy­ees are black. Un­til at least 1999, that of­fice tracked com­plaints via a hand­writ­ten ledger on a se­ries of taped-to­gether sheets of pa­per, a copy of which was ob­tained by The Washington Times. The sys­tem “made de­ter­min­ing sta­tis­tics im­pos­si­ble,” said a civil rights em­ployee from the time.

In re­cent months, such an­ti­quated record keep­ing has al­lowed em­ploy­ees to steal thou­sands of dol­lars that elec­tronic sys­tems eas­ily could have de­tected — and in more than one case, a cul­ture of com­plic­ity has kept prose­cu­tors from try­ing those who were caught be­cause they feared no clean wit­ness or proper records could be found.

“There’s a strong sense of nepo­tism, and it is the cul­ture of Metro,” the civil rights em­ployee said. “It was more of a buddy sys­tem than it was mer­it­based.”

Metro did not respond to re­quests for in­for­ma­tion about work­force de­mo­graph­ics. Asked about a court case in which a woman al­leged she was sex­u­ally harassed by a man about whom Metro had re­ceived com­plaints from mul­ti­ple women but did noth­ing, spokesman Dan Stes­sel would not deny the charges but pointed to the agency’s le­gal re­sponse, which also did not deny the charges but noted the statute of lim­i­ta­tions had ex­pired. Many work­ers are not given sex­ual-ha­rass­ment train­ing.

First-line man­agers

Of a dozen se­nior su­per­vi­sors over­see­ing the rail di­vi­sion in 2007, 10 were black and two were white, and five black su­per­vi­sors, all with less than a year of ten­ure in the po­si­tion, were paid more than both whites, who had more se­nior­ity — one with 20 years — per­son­nel records ob­tained by The Times show.

The group mak­ing more money in­cludes se­nior su­per­vi­sors such as Or­lando Ter­rell King, who has been charged with reck­less en­dan­ger­ment and fraud­u­lently at­tempt­ing to ob­tain a driver’s li­cense, ac­cord­ing to Mary­land state records. Mr. King, who is paid $62,536, was pro­moted by Metro to over­see those who drive trains car­ry­ing thou­sands of pas­sen­gers daily.

Also ris­ing rapidly to se­nior su­per­vi­sor was Rob­bie O. Mcgee, who spent eight years in fed­eral prison for felony dis­tri­bu­tion of PCP while on pro­ba­tion for an­other crime. He re­ceived five pay in­creases at Metro in two years.

“There’s a prob­lem with the firstline su­per­vi­sors and pos­si­bly above ac­tu­ally en­forc­ing ba­sic dis­ci­pline. When a su­per­vi­sor walks into a kiosk on Sun­day when the game’s on and asks where’s the TV and brings a plate of food in, there’s a dis­con­nect,” a for­mer union rep­re­sen­ta­tive said.

The per­son­nel record of the white male se­nior su­per­vi­sor, Robert Fish, mean­while, in­di­cates strict stan­dards and scru­tiny, in­clud­ing sus­pen­sions and se­vere rep­ri­mands for mi­nor in­frac­tions such as pos­ses­sion of a cov­ered cup of cof­fee.

Anti-elitism

Ms. Townsend had a col­lege de­gree and a decade of ex­pe­ri­ence as a school­teacher when she was passed over for a train­ing job in fa­vor of a man who had taken some com­mu­nity col­lege cour­ses and, it turned out, could barely write a sen­tence.

She sued Metro and won, but re­tired from the rail depart­ment in 2005 af­ter an­other per­son­nel decision that seemed to have noth­ing to do with merit. By that time, she had earned a mas­ter’s de­gree from Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity. But when a po­si­tion as head of train­ing arose, it went to some­one whose most rel­e­vant ex­pe­ri­ence was as sec­re­tary at a com­mu­nity col­lege, she said.

It is not just that medi­ocrity is over­looked. Dozens of em­ploy­ees whom Metro rules for­bid from speak­ing to the me­dia said: Dili­gence is dis­cour­aged, be­cause any­where one looked was some­thing that needed to be fixed — and change, es­pe­cially when it in­volved work, was anath­ema to se­nior Metro line work­ers.

For ex­am­ple, Ms. Townsend said, by 2004, many trains were op­er­at­ing with­out ra­dios in de­fi­ance of fed­eral rules. Other driv­ers con­firmed that was com­mon knowl­edge. So she au­thored a study and in­cluded a rec­om­men­da­tion that Metro start sub­sti­tut­ing cell­phones.

“I was read the riot act: ‘You had no right to com­pile these sta­tis­tics,’ even though it was my job. They didn’t want peo­ple show­ing prob­lems,” she said.

Her ca­pac­ity as trainer gave her a van­tage to long-term im­pact of the work­place cul­ture.

“Some new peo­ple, es­pe­cially ear­lier on, would come in so en­thu­si­as­tic, like lit­tle boys who liked to have toy trains. But when you put them out there with a su­per­vi­sor who didn’t care about any­thing ex­cept cov­er­ing his butt, it killed their en­thu­si­asm” she said.

Pen­cil-whip­ping

Days af­ter a Red Line ac­ci­dent killed nine in July 2009, Brenda Whor­ton drew the line.

“I told them I wasn’t go­ing to pen­cil-whip for them,” she said, re­fer­ring to a tech­nique so com­mon in Metro cul­ture that there is a term for it. “It means fudging it: like mark­ing down that a mo­tor’s ac­cord­ing to specs when it’s not.” It is com­mon for mid­night­shift work­ers to “lock the doors and go to sleep, be­cause they’ve got other jobs,” and equally com­mon for su­per­vi­sors to turn a blind eye, she said, lead­ing to pen­cil-whip­ping of the in­spec­tions they’re sup­posed to be do­ing — and de­lays for morn­ing riders.

“Any­one who blew the whis­tle or caused any trou­ble, when pick time came — ev­ery six months you pick shifts — you’d be moved. They spend more time try­ing to ma­nip­u­late this stuff than they do do­ing their job.”

Dozens said white work­ers, es­pe­cially women, were openly sub­ject to racist and sex­ist re­marks with­out reper­cus­sion — be­hav­ior that drove many tar­gets to seek trans­fers or leave the agency. All said they have been in­ex­pli­ca­bly passed over hun­dreds of times for pro­mo­tions to po­si­tions such as sta­tion man­ager while oth­ers with less se­nior­ity passed them by.

“I was the only white woman in car main­te­nance out of 338, and they made my life mis­er­able,” Ms. Whor­ton said, adding that col­leagues once elec­tri­fied a track cir­cuit on which she was work­ing and laughed. “Noth­ing hap­pened to them.”

Union dues and don’ts

In its af­fir­ma­tive-ac­tion plan, Metro man­age­ment con­tends that union poli­cies dic­tate who re­ceives jobs, sti­fling abil­ity to pro­vide di­ver­sity. “Un­less these pro­tected groups are al­ready em­ployed in the col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing food chain, good faith ef­forts to trans­fer or pro­mote them are non-ex­is­tent. This sce­nario fur­ther cre­ates a vi­cious cy­cle with more of the same groups be­ing pro­moted or trans­ferred,” man­agers wrote.

Most work­ers are re­quired to join the Amal­ga­mated Tran­sit Union 689, and a cu­ri­ous ar­range­ment al­lows many man­agers to re­tain their af­fil­i­a­tion with the union, cre­at­ing an al­liance in which dis­ci­plin­ing poor-per­form­ing work­ers is dis­cour­aged.

“To write some­one up within the 689, you just don’t do that,” Ms. Whor­ton said.

The union has ac­knowl­edged that many em­ploy­ees are aware of safety is­sues and theft and do not re­port them be­cause of a cul­ture in which re­tal­i­a­tion is com­mon. It says that’s im­pro­pri­ety from man­age­ment and that the union will work to pro­tect whistle­blow­ers if they ask.

Union Pres­i­dent Jackie L. Jeter noted that the union isn’t in charge of hir­ing and said that whites, women and His­pan­ics must not be ap­ply­ing for jobs.

“If Cau­casians or His­pan­ics want to put in for jobs, they have am­ple op­por­tu­nity to ap­ply — and once they be­come bus op­er­a­tors, they can go work in South­east,” she said.

White women say those words are ut­tered re­peat­edly to those who ap­ply for jobs and those in their first years, but that it is more of an at­tempt at in­tim­i­da­tion than a re­al­ity.

Union lead­ers some­times in­voke racial lan­guage, in­clud­ing Mrs. Jeter, who heads the $20 mil­lion union with her hus­band, Roland Jeter, sec­ond in com­mand. Graph­ics on the union’s web­site have de­picted her in her role as union pres­i­dent along­side pho­tos of civil rights lead­ers Martin Luther King Jr. and Mal­colm X.

A flier cir­cu­lated as Mrs. Jeter was run­ning for elec­tion claimed she wor­ried that “too many whites might end up in charge. She also told me she was sick and tired of hear­ing about the Latino Cau­cus.”

When a worker says he or she has been treated un­fairly by Metro, the union mem­ber­ship holds a vote to de­cide whether to de­fend the worker, typ­i­cally ob­tain­ing re­duc­tions in pun­ish­ment from man­age­ment. It votes to take to ar­bi­tra­tion more than 40 com­plaints monthly.

Court records show that a white woman, Denise Brooks, was fired af­ter her wal­let was stolen from an area ac­ces­si­ble only to em­ploy­ees. She re­ported the theft, then asked to mod­ify the re­port to bet­ter re­flect the con­tents of her wal­let af­ter check­ing bank records. A su­per­vi­sor said the up­date amounted to ly­ing and fired her, a move that ul­ti­mately was over­turned.

When Mrs. Brooks brought prob­lems about the way she was be­ing treated to the union, records show, the mem­ber­ship voted twice to deny her griev­ances.

Court records show many of those who get into trou­ble at Metro for fight­ing, drugs and the like and have dis­ci­plinary ac­tions reversed at the union’s be­hest, de­spite hav­ing doc­u­mented track records of sim­i­lar be­hav­ior. A news­let­ter boasts, for ex­am­ple, that the union won re­in­state­ment with back pay for a train op­er­a­tor if she com­pleted a drug class. But a search of her name in crim­i­nal records in­di­cates that far from this be­ing an iso­lated in­ci­dent, the woman has a well-doc­u­mented drug and theft prob­lem.

“That was a court prob­lem, not a Metro prob­lem,” Mrs. Jeter said, adding that it wasn’t the union’s job to ad­dress pro­fes­sion­al­ism — that is done by per­for­mance re­views that re­ward the best work­ers with raises. “Pro­fes­sion­al­ism is re­warded when you get your pay­check.”

THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Res­cue work­ers ar­rive at the crash site where two Metro trains col­lided head-on near the Fort Tot­ten Metro Sta­tion in June 2009. “When the ac­ci­dent hap­pened in 2009, I called a su­per­vi­sor and said, ‘Is this the one we all dreaded?’ ” said Chris­tine Townsend, who sued Metro for dis­crim­i­na­tion and won.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.