Grace Brown worked for the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation for nearly three decades, primarily as a worker cleaning park bathrooms, she says.
“I did my job well, hoping that one day I could improve,” said Brown, 59.
She never did.
Brown was hired as a laborer and resigned as a laborer, spending the first 14 years as a seasonal employee with no benefits, she says.
“My season lasted 14 years… without vacations, without medical care,” said the grandmother raised in the Central District, whose job also included fieldwork in the parks.
Brown has trained new employees multiple times and has been interviewed multiple times for better positions, she says. But her career came and went without promotion (other than when she was granted permanent status) even when employees who weren’t black moved up, she says.
“There were a lot of people who got into this profession and now they’re a team leader and supervisors,” Brown said.
Now Brown and six other black women who worked for the parks department are suing the city, alleging racial discrimination and disparate treatment based on race and gender.
“It’s a bitter pill that we have swallowed, and now it’s time for us to speak up,” she said.
Most complainants allege that they have been denied promotions, most allege that they have been subject to retaliation for various reasons, and several say that they have been wrongly disciplined. All of them are over 40 years old.
Three still work for the Parks Department, while three say they felt compelled to quit, and one alleges she was wrongly fired.
Their lawsuit, filed last August, seeks unspecified damages, arguing that they have made less money over the years than they would have had with promotions and other opportunities. He alleges that supervisors and department directors have been “responsible for perpetuating a hostile work environment towards African-American women.”
“What they can all show is that they were treated differently,” said Oscar Desper III, lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Last October, the Seattle city attorney’s office filed a court response denying the main allegations, and the case is slated to go to trial in 2022. Beyond that, the parks department declined to comment. The department does not comment on the pending lawsuits, a spokesperson said.
Complainants have many stories
Every woman who sues the city has a history of working at Parks, some more complicated than others. Brown was ignored for promotions that would have allowed her to make more money and work indoors, she says.
Recreation specialist Angela Smith, 44, says she spent 17 years at Parks without any promotions or out-of-class opportunities, allowing employees to earn more money and gain experience on a base. temporary in another job category. Assistant recreation coordinator Dawn Bennett, 57, says she was refused promotion to a community center coordinator position she already held outside of the classroom. The job went to a white man, she said.
Patricia Young, 58, says she left the parks department in the same secretary position she had been hired 24 years earlier. Sacha Wyatt, 45, says she was screened out of promotions and turned down for an electrical apprenticeship interview because she was three minutes late. She was late because the West Seattle Bridge was malfunctioning, says Wyatt, a laborer. A white man got the job, she said.
Cherryl Jackson Williams, 48, former recreation specialist, says she has been unfairly demoted, with the Parks Department citing unsatisfactory credit card reconciliation and billing job. Kelly Guy, 54, former recreation manager, says she was wrongly fired, the department citing a pattern of inappropriate communication with employees and members of the public.
The women allege that they were treated differently from male employees and non-black employees in similar situations.
Some say they have been denied promotions not because of their work in the department and with community members, but rather because of their “interview skills”.
“It’s a system of doing things,” said Bennett, a candidate for mayor from Kent. “I had to be everything and then some… I just was never good enough in the interview rooms.”
Filing complaints at work is risky for black women, who tend to be characterized as troublemakers, according to several complainants. At the Parks Department, complaints have sometimes led to worse conditions, they say.
“You have to be very intentional about how you represent your challenges because you know they are just waiting for that moment when you present everything that looks like an angry black woman,” said Jackson Williams.
Some details of the trial – such as the allegations of racist remarks and the circumstances in which the promotions and discipline took place – are difficult to assess, as park department officials declined to comment and because the court’s response from the city did not present alternative narratives.
For example, the city court response acknowledged that Brown was never promoted, other than from seasonal worker to permanent worker. The response did not address his allegations about the interns who were subsequently promoted.
The department declined to provide information about the plaintiffs’ employment, ordering the Seattle Times to file a public registration application instead. This request is pending.
The lawsuit in some, but not all, cases names male employees and employees who are not black, who would have been treated better. The case may depend on whether the complainants can support these kinds of examples.
The costume in context
The data provides some context for the trial. Parks is one of the city’s largest departments and employs more black women than most departments, according to payroll records provided by the city’s human resources department.
Last year, about 8.5% of employees paid by the Parks Department with any number of hours worked were black women, according to records. About 6.5% paid by Parks with at least 1,000 hours worked were black women. Employees who identify as “two or more races” are listed separately in the records.
Among Parks Department employees who worked 1,000 hours or more in 2020, black women earned an average of $ 69,400 in gross wages, while black men averaged $ 69,300, white women averaged $ 80,000. , white men average $ 79,000 and all employees average $ 75,300.
Black women received 6.6% of all Parks promotions from 2010 to mid-May 2021, according to promotion records provided by the human resources department. They worked about 8.7% of all non-classroom hours last year.
Last year, very few Parks Service employees with “manager” or “executive” in their title were black women.
Department officials declined to comment or confirm these data points, which were not included in the trial, as the Times interviewed them at the same time as the trial.
Desper, the lawyer, asked if the promotion records were complete and accurate. He noted the scarcity of black women in the upper ranks of the parks department.
The plaintiffs and their attorneys, Desper and Robert Fulton, cite a 2018 study by graduate students at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy.
The study, which reviewed documents and interviewed employees to assess the Parks Department’s implementation of the Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative, yielded results that are consistent with the lawsuit. The initiative was launched in 2004 to tackle racial inequalities by applying a special focus to all city work.
The researchers found “a general feeling of mistrust” among Parks, with many employees afraid to honestly express their opinions on the initiative, and “a perception that hiring and promotion opportunities are more likely to be. granted to whites “.
The study also found that white employees were more likely to have positive experiences in the department and that “some employees of color feel symbolized, especially those in managerial positions.”
The researchers wrote, “Black women have consistently reported being ignored for advancement opportunities in favor of white people,” although they paved the way for RSJI efforts.
Racial justice work
RSJI’s efforts within departments are led by employees, like Young and Smith, who volunteer for additional work.
Young and Smith say they were targeted by superiors who opposed and complained about RSJI’s efforts, especially when they raised questions about racism in the workplace.
“This is the job the city wanted us to do… and I kept them at their word,” Young said.
Many of the complainants grew up in Parks programs and began working in the ministry when they were still teenagers.
Guy and Bennett once ran late night programs. Brown worked at the Garfield Community Center when Smith was growing up there. Smith knew she wanted to work for the department as well.
They say the way they were treated sounds like betrayal.
“I came to the parks department on welfare. I quit welfare and started my life with my daughter, ”said Brown, recalling how she encouraged her nieces and nephews to work in the parks department.
Now she doesn’t know what to say.
“That’s why we’re here,” Brown said. “Yes, there are repairs you have to pay for. But the main thing that you need to get is that you are not going to make it to the next generation. “