Black Peoples Gas workers say in lawsuit they’ve faced discrimination working for the Chicago utility

Nearly a dozen former and current Peoples Gas workers say in the federal lawsuit that the company racially discriminated against Black employees in the Chicago area.

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Letitia Jackson, a former Peoples Gas employee, is among nearly a dozen former and current Peoples Gas employees filing a federal lawsuit against the company over alleged safety and racial discrimination.

Letitia Jackson, a former Peoples Gas employee, is among nearly a dozen former and current Peoples Gas employees filing a federal lawsuit against the company over alleged safety and racial discrimination.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Letitia Jackson felt passionate about her career after getting hired by one of the state’s largest utility companies, where few other Black professionals worked.

“For me to be the face of a Black woman, that could say I know how to do construction, I know how to do piping,” Jackson said. “I was really proud of that and to say that I work at Peoples Gas — that was something I was proud of.”

But her aspirations of climbing the ranks of Peoples Gas fizzled as she started experiencing a culture she and other workers say discriminates against Black employees. She’s among 11 former and current Peoples Gas employees who filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against Peoples Gas, saying that Black workers and customers were sexualized by non-Black workers and faced racial slurs.

The lawsuit says Black workers are relegated to an area that serves the South Side, and they frequently get assigned to jobs in neighborhoods without security where some have faced attacks. The workers also allege that Peoples Gas did not do enough after concerns were raised about workplace racism and hazards.

Peoples Gas said the accusations aren’t true.

“We adamantly deny the allegations made by these individuals, including the extreme and false claims of racial bias, and will vigorously defend the suit. We provide a workplace with equal opportunities for all employees, including a long-standing unionized field workforce,” the utility stated.

Dozens decry a proposed rate hike on natural gas during a protest in front of the headquarters for Peoples Gas at the Aon Center in downtown Chicago in March.

Dozens decry a proposed rate hike on natural gas during a protest in front of the headquarters for Peoples Gas at the Aon Center in downtown Chicago in March.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Earlier this month, the Illinois Commerce Commission voted to cut the utility’s pipe-replacement budget for next year and ordered an investigation into spending.

During Jackson’s time with the company, she endured comments from co-workers about her clothes and speculation about what she would do for money, according to the lawsuit. It was part of a pattern other workers reported experiencing. One worker said co-workers speculated about his sex life because he is a Black man, while others heard fellow employees make sexual comments about Black customers.

Garland Eleby, another plaintiff, remembers on his first day of work hearing a white co-worker using a racial slur.

“Nobody flinched,” said Eleby, who still works for Peoples Gas. “Nobody looked up or asked, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with you?’ Nothing. It rolled off the tongue like he said it every day.”

The lawsuit also says the company places more of its Black workforce in the area that serves the South Side while also assigning them to jobs in neighborhoods with higher rates of crime. The former and current workers who are part of the lawsuit detail how they’ve experienced assaults, robberies and attempted robberies.

A little more than a year into his job, Eleby said he and other co-workers were robbed at gunpoint after being assigned to work in an area overnight where a car crash had disrupted service. He said they were forced to stay in the same area for six to seven hours afterward.

“I was really upset,” Eleby said. “I was disgusted. It was like we got sent into a battle with no proper gear or anything. It was just like no regard for how we felt.”

Jackson recalled she witnessed a shooting while working, and she was so shaken up that she drove in reverse.

“When I got back to the shop, my supervisor only offered me a hot dog,” she said. “I am crying, bawling in tears, wanting to go home, and I was told, well, you’ll have to use your own [paid time off] to go home.”

Letitia Jackson, a former Peoples Gas employee, is among nearly a dozen former and current Peoples Gas employees filing a federal lawsuit against the company over alleged safety and racial discrimination.

Letitia Jackson, a former Peoples Gas employee, is among nearly a dozen former and current Peoples Gas employees filing a federal lawsuit against the company over alleged safety and racial discrimination.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

In a written statement, Peoples Gas said it utilizes private security and works with the Chicago police to support the safety of employees when deemed appropriate.

The lawsuit says there were discriminatory practices for Black employees that affected overtime, promotions and discipline.

Jason Towns, who’s one of those suing, said he thinks racism played a role in his termination in 2022. He was part of a crew that damaged an underground service line, but Towns said that his white co-worker was not disciplined.

It’s one of the reasons why Towns said he felt compelled to speak out after seeking other avenues of change with no results.

“I just want to come to work and do my job,” said Towns, who has returned to Peoples Gas. “Do the best job that I could possibly do and just go home. I hate to have to be the person here to bring light to this particular situation, but it’s inevitable.”

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