SEATTLE—African American workers who worked on Seattle's Sound Transit light rail project are telling a civil rights attorney that they were discriminated against and forced to quit or were fired after only a few days on the job.
Seattle attorney Lori Haskell said she has talked to at least four African Americans who all tell her the same story: They were given no tools, as had been promised; they were not assigned a task; and they were told a day or two later that they were fired because they didn't appear to want to work.
All of those who have spoken to Haskell were assigned by their union, Northwest Laborers Local 440, to work at the one-mile-long Beacon Hill tunnel, which is part of the 15.6-mile light rail line that eventually will go from downtown Seattle to SeaTac Airport.
Although a lawsuit hasn't yet been filed against the Obayashi Corp., which was hired by Sound Transit to do the Beacon Hill portion of the project, Haskell said she sees a pattern in the complaints and is seriously considering a class-action suit if more workers come forward.
In the meantime, Obayashi and Sound Transit are conducting separate investigations into the complaints. Obayashi's report is expected with the next two weeks, but Sound Transit's report will not be ready for several more weeks, according to representatives from both organizations.
"The typical story I'm hearing is that African American males are hired out of the union hall for this big project, and they think they are going to be hired for a long time," Haskell said. "Everybody's really happy to get assigned there."
A typical hourly wage to carve out the tunnel is $26 an hour, according to two of the workers. The Beacon Hill project could continue for another three years; the entire light rail project is slated to be completed by 2009.
"But they are not issued the same tools and safety gear as everyone else," Haskell said. "They show up and they're not assigned work because they don't have tools. Because it's a tunnel and it's wet, they need a particular type of raingear, but that's not issued.
"Finally, they go to the foreman and tell him, 'I need something to do,' and the foreman says, 'Go help Bob,' but Bob says 'I don't need help.' The foreman tells them they're fired because they're not working. It's a set-up."
One of those who came to see Haskell is Thurman Young, 40, who has been a union member for six years and worked on construction projects for 17 years. He knows what it's like to be what he calls a "tunnel rat" and how to use the shovel to dig out the dirt.
Young was assigned the graveyard shift on the tunnel. He received boots that were too large but no tools or raingear. He was told there were no lockers available for him and was asked if he minded waiting until one became free.
The only task he was given was "fetching hose and line" for others to use.
"I was trying to stay busy, but I was basically standing around all night," Young said. Although he knew a couple of workers from previous jobs, "I had just met these people, and they're just coming at you like 'we don't like you and we're running you off the job,'" added Young, who said he knew of five other African Americans who had similar experiences.
Young said he heard sarcastic comments from a foreman and others.
"I was made to look like some dummy," he added. "The only thing they didn't say to me was 'nigger.'" After spending 10 hours in the "hole," Young emerged in the morning to go home. On his way out, another worker told him that he was going to be fired when he returned to work that night.
"I don't expect that from a large contractor," Young said. "It hurts because that's a $65,000 job that I lost. I would understand if it was because I was missing days, but this leads me to believe there's discrimination there."
When he tried to file a grievance with the union, he was told he didn't have a "grieveable offense." He also made a complaint to the Obayashi Corp., and Young said the company proposed mediation. But Young had already talked to Haskell, who had been referred to him by a fellow worker. Besides, he said, he didn't feel safe in a tunnel 150 feet underground after making formal complaints.
"They could do anything to me," Young added.
He supports the idea of a court hearing on the issue. "It would show other companies that this can't go on," he said.
Lafect Campbell, 49, tells a similar story. He had been waiting nearly two years to work on the Sound Transit project, and when his bid finally was accepted, he thought he would have a secure job for at least three years. He ended up working at the site for only 2 ½ months, from March to mid-May.
Campbell also was assigned the graveyard shift, and he said that he, too, was given boots that were too large, a respirator that didn't work and received few tools.
Like Young, Campbell was given the job of pulling a hose, which, he said, normally is pulled by three or four people because it is so large and heavy. But he was assigned to pull it by himself, and in the process, he hurt his wrist. A physician at the site said he should be put on light duty until it healed. Campbell then was assigned to clean the changing room, called the "dry room," where workers dress and take showers after work.
It was there that he said he started hearing comments about "lazy Blacks" and other derogatory remarks made by workers behind closed toilet doors. On the floor, Campbell said, he saw that someone had carved the statement "Kill Nigger" in the linoleum near the lockers. He also was accused of taking money that had been left in the room.
"I asked the person in charge of me if I could do other things," Campbell said. "I was approached by a safety person who told me, 'Don't set foot in any other areas.' The word was that they put you inside the dry room to work you before they remove you," Campbell added.
"I had a theory that I would be the best worker they had ever seen."
He said he bought a carpet for the entry to collect clay dirt off of workers' boots before they went into the locker area, and he even bought more dust pans to use.
He said he saw other African Americans show up for work, only to be quickly fired. Campbell said he tried to talk to the Obayashi supervisors on site and received little response. He also discussed the problem with a community relations representative from Sound Transit, but he was reluctant to leave a voice mail message for a human resources representative for fear of retaliation.
However, Campbell did meet with Jon Kirk, business manager in Obayashi's Seattle office, along with Young and another African American worker. In a follow-up letter from Kirk to Campbell, Kirk said the company would take the men's allegations "very seriously."
The company hired an independent investigator to check out the claims, and Kirk asked Campbell and the others to participate in the investigation. However, Campbell said he didn't meet with the investigator because he had already contacted Haskell.
Kirk said Obayashi, an international civil and commercial construction company, has a "zero-tolerance policy" against discrimination in any form.
"Any complaints are investigated thoroughly by the company," Kirk said.
He said the company is exceeding its goal for minority workforce participation. While the goal was to have 21 percent of people of color in the workforce, the company has 26 percent, Kirk said. Of the subcontractors working with the company, 22.3 percent are minorities, he added.
Those figures differ somewhat from Sound Transit's figures for the Obayashi Corporation, according to Geoff Patrick, spokesman for Sound Transit. Through 2005, minorities made up 22.9 percent of Obayashi's workforce; 9 percent of those were African American. Small companies make up 11 percent of Obayashi's subcontractors, and 7 percent of those are minority- or women-owned businesses, Patrick said.
The light rail project, which is 46 percent complete, is divided into six sections, with a different major construction company in charge of each section. Obayashi is boring out the tunnel under South Lander Street and building an underground and above-ground station.
Patrick said that Sound Transit also takes the allegations of discrimination seriously and will make the investigator's report public. The transit company has been a target of criticism from Seattle area African Americans in the past.
"We do hold diversity as a major goal at Sound Transit," Patrick said. "We will continue to hold opportunities for people of color open."