Suit alleges unchecked racist and sexist behavior at Boston Water and Sewer
In an assembly room at the Boston Water and Sewer Commission in Roxbury where assignments are handed out each morning, employees allegedly sat in separate white and black sections, divided by a “Mason-Dixon line” that one white worker was warned not to cross.
When that woman, Barbara Gillis, became friends with a black colleague, Daniel Rose, co-workers, including two supervisors, reportedly disparaged her with racist remarks, from “she has jungle fever” to “my skin’s not dark enough for her to talk to me.”
Rose, who has worked for the commission since 2004, said a third supervisor singled him out for mistreatment, blackening a mirror on his desk and writing “Yo Yo Yo” and “Run-DMC” on his desk.
The explosive allegations are detailed in a racial- and gender-discrimination lawsuit filed against the agency Thursday in Suffolk Superior Court. The 27-page complaint accuses the commission of fostering an “open atmosphere of misogyny and racism where women and people of color are routinely discriminated against.”
The complaint contends that racial slurs are regularly used and tolerated by supervisors and that assignments are made on the basis of race. Women were “mocked and harassed,” and those who complained faced retaliation, the lawsuit stated.
“The environment at Boston Water is straight out of the 1950s,” said Nick Carter, a lawyer who represents Gillis and Rose. “It’s shocking that it continues in our midst today.”
In a statement, Mayor Martin J. Walsh condemned the conduct described in the lawsuit.
“It goes without saying that the language and actions alleged here should not be tolerated in any workplace, and we hope that this is resolved as quickly as possible,” he said.
City Council President Andrea Campbell called for an investigation into the allegations, saying she was aware of another racist incident at the commission.
Gillis and Rose filed the lawsuit against the commission; its executive director, Henry F. Vitale; and supervisors Phil Smith, Brian Lee, and Richard Sullivan. A spokeswoman for the agency declined to comment, citing commission policy. The department is run by a board of commissioners who are appointed by Walsh and confirmed by the City Council.
The lawsuit alleges that Gillis and Rose suffered more than $1 million in damages.
In an interview Thursday, Gillis said she had hoped to spend the rest of her career at the commission because of the good pay and opportunities for advancement.
“They forced me out of there because I wanted to do the right thing. They didn’t like that I was friendly with black people. They didn’t like that I was a girl trying to do ‘men’s’ work,” she said. “I’m not the first person who’s ever had to go through this [at the commission] but I would like to be the last.”
Gillis and Rose are out of work on disability, Carter said. Rose, 34, who lives in Dorchester, last worked in November 2017 when a licensed social worker diagnosed him with post traumatic stress disorder and advised him not to return to his job, the lawsuit stated.
Gillis, 33, a Charlestown resident, last worked in January, when she was diagnosed with an adjustment disorder and anxiety and instructed not to return to work.
Neither worker has been able to find a comparable job. As of July 2017, Rose’s annual pay rate was $76,354 and Gillis’s was $57,226, payroll records show.
The discrimination and harassment began in 2010, when Rose said that a supervisor, Joe Beaudette, blackened a mirror on his desk and wrote “Can you see me now?,” according to the complaint.
Rose reported the incident, but the commission’s director of organizational diversity later wrote to him saying an investigation found no evidence to support his claims, even though Beaudette was caught on video vandalizing Rose’s belongings, the complaint alleged.
Beaudette was not disciplined and continued to supervise Rose, the lawsuit said. Beaudette could not be reached for comment Thursday.
In 2014, Rose was assigned to a crew that worked under Smith, who called him derogatory names and urged him to violate safety rules on the job, the complaint said.
When Rose approached Sullivan, a commission superintendent, about Smith’s behavior, Sullivan apologized for his conduct and told him to “count to 100” to cope, the lawsuit said.
Last November, Smith accused Rose of showing up late for work. Rose filed a complaint with the human resources department, which concluded that Rose had reported for work on time, the lawsuit stated. Rose was sent back to work for Smith, who labeled him a “rat” because he had complained about him, the lawsuit said.
“I want my life back,” he said. “I don’t want to feel like I have to fight for equality every day.”
Gillis, who began working for the commission in 2013, said Smith, her supervisor, mocked her for doing “man’s work” and that she was called a “dyke,” according to the complaint.
Male co-workers complained if she asked to use the bathroom, telling her she could urinate in a bucket on the truck, as they did, the lawsuit stated.
Last May, Gillis complained to Sullivan about Smith, the lawsuit said. Sullivan said Smith would have to undergo sensitivity training or be fired if his behavior continued, according to the complaint. But Sullivan didn’t take action against Smith, the lawsuit said, and Smith was told about Gillis’s complaints.
The following day, Smith distributed a document at work titled “HURT FEELINGS REPORT,” which sought information like “WHINER’S NAME,” and “DATE FEELINGS WERE HURT,” the lawsuit stated.
The document also asked why workers had filed a complaint, with options that included “I want my Mommy” and “My panties are wadded up.”
Sullivan didn’t respond to a message seeking comment. A telephone number for Smith couldn’t be found.
In October 2017, Gillis met with Vitale, who told her he would address the issues “after the election” of Walsh last November, according to the complaint. After Gillis met with the commission’s labor relations department in December, supervisors began to ostracize her, at one point leaving her to sit alone in a water truck during her shift, the lawsuit alleged.
After she went on disability, Gillis told her union representative that Smith was parking on her street and driving by her house, the complaint said. An investigation by the commission confirmed that Smith routinely sat outside Gillis’s house or drove in circles around the property, the suit said.
Smith remains on the job, according to the complaint.