Two African-American former employees of the city’s Water Department are so afraid of what could happen if they testify against a co-worker, they are seeking police protection.
David Reed and Christopher Harris said they complained about the racist and violent culture at the Water Department for more than a decade, but their complaints fell on deaf ears.
“We tried to get relief. We contacted management, talked to the city’s Inspector General’s office, and the EEOC, and nothing happened,” Harris told me.
“Now the same individual that they allowed to intimidate us and harass us, they have subpoenaed us to testify against,” Reed said.
Anthony Nguyen was fired in May. The men are being asked to appear on Friday and again on Aug. 10 before an arbitrator in a hearing in which Nguyen is trying to get his job back.
The forensic scientists claimed they were harassed, threatened and intimidated by Nguyen and others and described a work environment where they were taunted with insults and racist cartoons even after they left the department.
A spokesman for Inspector General Joe Ferguson would not comment on this case.
Reed and Harris are now reluctant to testify, citing safety and health concerns.
“They apparently told him that we are responsible for him losing his job. We are afraid of this guy,” Reed said.
“We have expressed that concern to the corporation counsel. They say there is nothing they can do. The police can give us special attention for two weeks and that’s it. After that, we are on our own. The way the city operates, they get us to testify, and after two weeks and something happens, they’ll say: ‘Go away,'” Harris told me.
The men claim that even after they left the water department — Reed retired and Harris is on leave of absence — Nguyen sent them racist texts and emails and made threatening phone calls in the middle of the night.
Harris said he has an order of protection against Nguyen that is still in effect.
I was unable to reach Nguyen on Wednesday.
But a spokesman for the city’s law department said Nguyen’s firing is not related to the department’s shake-up over racist emails.
“The City of Chicago does not tolerate harassment of any kind. Department of Water Management officials enacted progressive disciplinary actions against Anthony Nguyen, which eventually resulted in his termination. He is appealing his firing, and we will strongly defend his separation from the City of Chicago,” said Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department.
The “racist email scandal” has resulted in the firings of several high-level managers, including the former Department of Water Management Commissioner, Barrett Murphy, who has close ties to the mayor.
The Inspector General’s office stumbled on the offensive emails while investigating allegations that the son of a former alderman had used his email account to sell guns.
Last week, the department’s African-American employees filed a class-action lawsuit accusing the city of “unlawful policies, patterns and employment practices to create and proliferate a hostile and abusive work environment based on race that includes violence, intimidation, and retaliation . . .”
The behavior Reed and Harris said they endured while working for the water department appears to fit that pattern.
Harris said he got a call from the Inspector General’s office encouraging him to testify at the arbitration hearing.
“They basically said if we didn’t testify, Anthony Nguyen could get his job back and he should never have been hired and should never be reinstated,” Harris said.
Reed argues that the racist behavior is nothing new.
“We’ve been saying this ever since 2005. [Nguyen] was able to do all this without being reprimanded. I don’t trust any of them. They are offering us nothing. We can’t get our jobs back, any health benefits or protection. The city really doesn’t care,” he said.
It is unfortunate that these men had to wait so long for entrenched racism in the city’s water department to be addressed.
Hopefully, the city can give these men the assurances they need so no other employee has to go through what they did.