Sun-Times file photo

Water Management workers insist racist culture outlined in emails hasn’t changed

SHARE Water Management workers insist racist culture outlined in emails hasn’t changed
SHARE Water Management workers insist racist culture outlined in emails hasn’t changed

A black woman who was told she wouldn’t get a promotion because she “wouldn’t go under the desk.”

African-American men who were denied promotions and overtime and denounced on a daily basis as the N-word with profanity attached.

Blacks of both sexes who dared to complain about discrimination, only to be punished with trumped-up charges based on hearsay.

Water Management Commissioner Randy Conner, who is African-American, has claimed to have “changed the culture” of the department at the center of a racist, sexist and homophobic email scandal, but his employees told a different story at a City Council hearing Wednesday.

They talked about a male bastion of a department dominated by whites that remains full of discrimination and hate even after Water Management Commissioner Barrett Murphy, managing deputy William Bresnahan, district superintendent Paul Hansen and two other top managers were flushed out in a housecleaning triggered by those emails.

“I was told I’ll never get the position because I wouldn’t go under the desk by several supervisors,” said 11-year veteran construction laborer Frances Rounds.

Ald. David Moore (17th) asked Rounds how she interpreted the “go under the desk remark,” made by a white supervisor in 2014.

“I wouldn’t have sex with [a supervisor],” she said.

Leslie Travis Cook, a 20-year veteran water rate-taker, said she was twice the victim of “violence in the workplace.”

One supervisor threw a stapler at her, but the city “did nothing, she said. Another time, a co-worker tried to “run me down in a parking lot, but the city “dismissed it as horseplay,” she said.

“They are supposed to protect their employees. They failed to do that,” Cook said. “The way I feel now is, I won’t go to the city to report anything. I’ll just go straight to the state. … City agencies work with city agencies. I won’t get a fair deal.”

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Cook also said she was “humiliated, embarrassed” and fired by the city in May 2014 — after trumped-up charges based on hearsay. She got her job back — but not her desk.

“I was kept out of the building. I did not have a workplace to report to. I had to work out of my car — rain, sleet or snow,” she said.

“Can you imagine when it’s 3 degrees below zero sitting in your car doing your work? I couldn’t even come in the building to use the washroom.”

Ed Mosley, an 11-year veteran hoisting engineer, said overtime is “handed out like candy at a factory” in the department at the center of the Hired Truck and city hiring scandals, but only to whites with choice assignments and the most seniority.

“That’s $12,000 worth of overtime that’s being divided up between 33 Caucasian men. Not one is black. This has been going on for years,” Mosley said.

“When I asked to be put on the overtime list, I was sent to the North District. … That’s 17 miles one way from my house. Then, when the overtime did come back, I got sent back to the South District. Then, I get sent over here. Then, I get sent over there. As soon as you complain, you get disciplined. That’s just the bottom line. That’s how they play the game.”

Derrick Edmond, a 33-year veteran assigned to the south water purification plant, said he was forced to undergo 18 interviews for a single promotion because the job was apparently reserved for “a young white candidate.”

“What they want you to do is get discouraged and don’t go to the interview no more — and many of us do that. But I said I’m not stopping. So I … kept on going. Then, they gave me the job and they turned around and took it back,” Edmond said.

“When you go home and drink a glass of water, think about the black employees of the Chicago Water Department [who] had their hands on your water to make sure it’s pure. We deserve fair treatment.”

Edmond said he is referred to on a daily basis as the “m—–f—ing” N-word in a department with “100 deputy commissioners” and scores of assistant deputies that’s known as “the garbage can” because it’s a dumping ground for “rejects” fired from other departments.

He ripped Conner for failing to attend Wednesday’s hearing or send a single deputy. Conner said he was not invited and sent an emailed statement.

“I’ve made it clear that there is zero tolerance for any racism, sexism or homophobia on the part of Department of Water Management supervisors or employees,” Conner was quoted as saying.

“All Department employees attended EEO training in 2017, and I am making this training mandatory on an annual basis.”

Conner also had sent a one-page summary that outlined changes that include: a Bureau of Performance Management to overhaul scheduling and other policies and an overtime initiative to streamline approval and distribute overtime “more equitably.”

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), chairwoman of the City Council’s Human Relations Committee, said Conner is “trying to effect the bureaucracy … He has to get down into the bowels of the department, and he’s doing that. That takes time. But I’m confident that he’s starting … turning that ship around.”

Pressed on whether she believes that African Americans are still being mistreated, even under Conner, Dowell said, “We heard that from the current employees today — the ones that testified.”

Moore, whose resolution triggered the hearing, said he wants to dig deeper into Water Management’s appointed positions and find out who among that group has fostered the hate-filled culture.

Wednesday’s testimony by roughly 20 current and former employees is sure to intensify pressure on Mayor Rahm Emanuel to settle a lawsuit filed last year by four current and two former Water Management employees – all African-American.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson has already added fuel to the fire by alleging that Hansen, the son of a former Chicago alderman, used his city email account to buy or sell firearms and cars and send hate-filled emails describing African-Americans as “wild animals.”

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