State transportation officials are nearing a deal with the federal government to revamp their employment practices to address a mountain of complaints lodged against the MBTA for allegedly discriminating against minorities and women over the years in hiring, pay, and promotions.
The MBTA has a long history of bias complaints: Investigators for the attorney general found “widespread discrimination, harassment, and retaliation’’ at the agency in 1997, and it lost high-profile lawsuits in 1999 and 2001. In recent years, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination has received more complaints against the T than any other organization, public or private, a Globe analysis shows.
The MBTA said it received fewer than 260 complaints between 2010 and 2012. Federal regulators said the T spent more than $4 million on settlements and legal fees. But state officials failed to maintain enough records to determine whether the allegations of bias against woman and minorities were valid, something US officials found “extremely troubling and disappointing.”
Federal and state officials confirmed they are close to finalizing a plan to address concerns raised in a scorching letter from the Federal Transit Administration and the Federal Highway Administration last August that said the state was probably violating employment rules for agencies that receive federal funding.
To address the federal concerns, the state has proposed a number of changes to improve the process for handling complaints and to make sure that minorities, women, and other groups are being treated fairly.
“We believe our transportation agencies must represent all those they serve, and we are working to meet that goal throughout the organization,” Transportation Department spokeswoman Cyndi Roy Gonzalez said, noting that the Transportation Department has already beefed up the staff of its Office of Diversity and Civil Rights and made other improvements.
Civil rights advocates had mixed reaction to the prospects of an agreement.
Boston lawyer Philip Gordon, who represents 14 female and Latino workers in a discrimination complaint before the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, said he thought the state was grudgingly making changes only because the federal government could have pulled hundred of millions of dollars a year in transportation funds from the state.
“The system at the MBTA is broken,” Gordon said. “Instead of investigating and rooting out discrimination, the system operates to cover up discrimination and snuff out complaints.”
But Craig Dias, a T employee who has pushed for reform of the agency’s employment practices for two decades, welcomed the changes. “It’s never too late,” said Dias, a member of a group of MBTA employees called the Latino Alliance. “Anything we do is a positive step.”
Dias said he hopes the MBTA also considers offering mediation to workers who feel they have been harmed by discrimination in the past.
The state transportation agencies are also in talks with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination about reforming their practices.
The commission’s chairman, Julian Tynes, told the governor’s office last month that the agency was negotiating a “memorandum of understanding” with the MBTA and the Transportation Department that will include new human resources practices and systems to handle future civil rights complaints to help address the underlying causes of the complaints. The commission received more than 210 discrimination complaints against the MBTA from 2006 to mid-2013.
But Gonzales said the state talks are not as far along as the federal discussions. Potentially slowing state talks further, Governor Deval Patrick asked Tynes to recuse himself from negotiations after he disclosed that he was in the running for the job of director of labor relations for the department and the MBTA, creating a potential conflict.
Tynes and MCAD declined to comment on the discussions and how the recusal will affect the progress of the negotiations.
As for the federal talks, Massachusetts is still negotiating details of the federal corrective plan. But a recent draft proposed identifying a single executive to manage its Equal Employment Opportunity programs, developing a regular schedule for training and meetings on employment matters, dedicating more staff to the programs, more accurately tracking hiring and promotions, and setting hard numerical goals for improvements.
The agreement, expected to be finalized in coming weeks, comes after years of complaints against the MBTA, which operates much of the public transit in Greater Boston.
A jury awarded MBTA employee Hiram Clifton $5.5 million after he said he was subjected to nearly a decade of racist teasing by supervisors in 1999. Former administrator Roberta Edwards won a $7.6 million verdict in 2001 after she said the agency retaliated against her for filing a discrimination and retaliation complaint. The MBTA settled both cases for $2.45 million and $2 million respectively.
Former attorney general Scott Harshbarger inked an agreement with the T to overhaul its employment practices in 1997, including additional training for 150 managers, after his office found widespread widespread evidence of discrimination. That agreement lasted through 2005.
But a 2002 review by the attorney general’s office found continued allegations of discrimination, including distribution of “lewd and racist’’ literature and reports that some employees had established segregated locker rooms. The report also found a lack of women and minorities in higher positions. For instance, 81 percent of top jobs were held by white men, while two-thirds of black men worked as maintenance workers or other positions on the lowest rungs.
Gordon argued that system-wide bias persists at the MBTA against women and Latinos in his pending complaint with the Commission Against Discrimination, despite the fact that the MBTA hired Beverly Scott, an African-American woman, to run the agency a little over a year ago.
A recent filing in the case noted that the highest ranking Latino female was paid $40,000 less than white males in comparable positions. Between 2008 and 2010, the number of female workers at the T declined slightly to less than one-fourth of the staff.
But Gordon, who hopes his complaint will ultimately gain class-action status to represent all women and Latino workers at the agency, said the state discrimination commission has not taken any significant action on the case so far, allowing the case to languish. He added that the MBTA was not previously willing to deal with the issue.
“It’s stunning that the only time the MBTA and MassDOT will sit down at all to even consider fixing the system is when the federal government comes in and says we’ll pull your [funding],” Gordon said. “Even then, it’s kicking and screaming, its woefully inadequate for their problems, and it still fails to take care of the past.”
A Dec. 24 letter from federal transit officials noted that the Transportation Department and the MBTA accepted all the government’s recommendations for the remedial action plan and said it looked forward to helping bring the state into compliance with federal rules. Gonzalez said the department and the MBTA hope to implement their plan by the spring.
Todd Wallack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of incorrect information provided to the Globe, an earlier version of this story misstated the number of employment discrimination complaints the agency has received. The agency said it received fewer than 260 complaints between 2010 and 2012. This story, along with some past Globe stories, also misstated the reason why a former manager won a court verdict against the MBTA. Roberta Edwards had accused the agency of retaliating against her after filing a discrimination and retaliation complaint.