Minority grievances at T to be reviewed

Transportation agency for Mass. steps into fray

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / February 4, 2010

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The state’s Transportation Department announced yesterday that it would conduct a full-scale review of minority hiring and reports of discrimination at the MBTA, following months of complaints from civil rights groups and the immediate threat of a class action lawsuit.

The issue came to a boil during yesterday’s monthly meeting of the T’s board of directors, where Boston civil rights pioneer Mel King expressed deep frustration with the agency’s failure to address concerns about minority hiring, discipline, pay, and promotions.

“It seems as if we are back in the pre-civil-rights age, where we are trying to get organizations and agencies to stop the racist practices,’’ King said. Of his advice to employees, he said: “I keep telling them: Don’t waste time. Go to court.’’

That will probably be the next step. A group called the MBTA Latino Alliance, which has been meeting with state officials for three years, came to yesterday’s meeting with attorney Philip J. Gordon, who recently won a $40 million settlement against Wal-Mart. Gordon and Craig Dias, who leads the alliance, said a class action suit will be filed.

Dias was active in earlier civil rights actions against the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which has had a long history of racial turmoil. Between 1997 and 2005, the T was forced to operate under an equal opportunity agreement that allowed the state attorney general’s office to monitor hiring, promotions, and discipline in the agency. Minorities make up more than a third of the MBTA’s 6,000 employees.

Jeffrey Mullan, the state transportation secretary, and his director of civil rights, John Lozada, said the Commonwealth is committed to fixing any problems of inequity and takes the allegations seriously.

“This is a big issue that we’ve been fully committed to,’’ Mullan said, adding later that “we have no tolerance for workplace discrimination.’’

In addition to reviewing the T, the state will hold a monthly forum for T workers and outsiders to discuss civil rights issues.

Dias has met with various members of the Patrick administration and MBTA management for three years and said he has been given too many promises to take the latest ones seriously.

“They’ve been telling us for three years the same thing,’’ Dias said. “How can we view it as positive when there’s no action?’’

Dias and other minority groups have also taken their concerns to the Federal Transit Administration, which recently asked the T for an update of its minority employment data. A spokesman for the agency, which controls billions of dollars in funding for the T, confirmed meeting with minority groups and said the agency is “reviewing these complaints and will then determine next steps.’’

The complaints are wide-ranging, concerning both specific employee issues and broader questions of fairness. Several minority carpenters who work part-time at the T said during yesterday’s meeting that they had been passed over for full-time work at the agency by white employees who had less time on the job and less overall experience. They had spoken at past MBTA board meetings and been told their issues would be looked into, but they say they have gotten nothing more than lip service. They said that instead, they were denied work vehicles in retaliation for speaking out and had to transport their equipment in shopping carts across town on subways to get to a job site.

Dias alluded to instances during which minority and women managers were paid less than white counterparts. He also highlighted statistics showing that minorities were fired at disproportionate rates, jumping from 39.8 percent of all MBTA firings in 2005 to 62.9 percent in 2008.

Mary Fernandes, who recently took over as assistant general manager for the T’s diversity office, said 2009 numbers for fired employees were less drastic, with minorities making up 40.7 percent of those dismissed. Fernandes, who will help lead the review of T hiring with Lozada, said the transit agency “absolutely’’ has to hire more Hispanic and women employees, and to look at the level of authority and titles of those already at the agency.

“It’s something that we’ve been working on a while, and it’s a priority,’’ Fernandes said.

The review of the T’s minority issues will also examine the effectiveness of Fernandes’s office, which had been without a permanent leader since summer 2008. The office has faced significant turnover in recent years, as well as accusations that it was ineffective in addressing grievances. The last full-time director of the T’s diversity office, Jeanne Morrison, was accused by one of her employees in a discrimination lawsuit of referring to Latinos as “sneaky.’’