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Dirty Laundry

A procession of Department of Water and Power employees seized the floor and railed against harassment and retaliation recently at a Board of Commissioners meeting, causing jaws to drop and commissioners to avert their eyes. Ordinarily the board conducts the DWP’s weighty business in a dispassionate manner, sparing little time for discussion about mistreatment of its workers, but this meeting featured a whiff of the DWP’s dirty laundry being aired out.

In the weeks since last month’s board meeting, employees have continued to come forward and patterns of mismanagement have emerged, along with demands that key managers be held accountable. The question now for commissioners appointed by Mayor Jim Hahn is: How long can they stand the stink?

Emboldened by an L.A. Weekly exposé on the DWP’s cover-up of discrimination, harassment and retaliation settlements, five veteran employees stood up on August 17 and pleaded with Hahn’s commissioners to discipline upper- and midlevel managers for allowing their minions to demean and torment those who have stood up against unfair work conditions and abusive treatment. The secret settlements uncovered by the Weekly cost the public almost $10 million, including attorneys’ fees. With more than 70 employee-abuse claims unresolved, many poised for filing as lawsuits, and numerous lawsuits already pending, the DWP’s labor problems could boil over, at ratepayer expense. In addition to a history of base treatment of women and minorities, longtime employees say, the DWP is plagued with nepotism, cronyism and union failure to back the rank and file, while management tolerates juvenile tactics that ostracize, humiliate and punish some, and promotes others through manipulation of the civil-service system.

Daniel Shrader, a truck and equipment dispatcher who was passed over for promotion, was the first to speak in a packed room on the 15th floor of the DWP’s headquarters. He has a retaliation complaint on file with the city’s Employee Relations Board. Just before he spoke, he submitted a report to board President Dominick Rubalcava titled “DWP Management: Evidence of DWP Management–Orchestrated Harassment, Retaliation, and Perjury Against Its Employees.” The report contains photographs posted in June 2003 outside a district supervisor’s office of Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein and morbidly obese people. It includes detailed accounts of racial discrimination, harassment, and retaliation against whistleblowers. “We are plagued by many political interests, and they have provided an opportunity for the unscrupulous to gain and wield power within the Department of Water and Power,” Shrader said, urging the commissioners to look at a spree of employee reassignments, promotions, transfers, demotions, temporary assignments and discipline “as possible forums for intimidation and control.”

Maria Vizcarra, a senior custodian at the DWP and an employee of 22 years, said she met last December with Assistant General Manager Thomas Hokinson to address employee safety concerns. Later she was “followed around by investigators like some sort of criminal,” she said. “Nobody in this room knows that feeling,” Vizcarra sobbed. On June 17, she was told she could be fired. Last Thursday, Vizcarra was hospitalized after suffering an anxiety attack at her job. She is on temporary disability and is taking medication for depression. “Every day I fear that this is the day I will be fired,” she says.

Veteran trucker Kenneth Flippin says he was fired two weeks after testifying on behalf of an African-American who alleged he was subjected to questionable drug tests and taunted with racial epithets. According to Shrader’s report, during a civil-service hearing, Flippin had described a hostile work environment and testified that he overheard a supervisor threaten to “get that black son of a bitch out of here.” Standing before the DWP commissioners, Flippin said, “You shouldn’t be retaliated against for telling the truth.” Flippin, 63, was fired for lying down in a hammock attached to his truck, after arriving early at a job site. Shrader’s report alleges that fleet-services manager Thomas Anderbery, who reports to Hokinson, was overheard telling the supervisor against whom Flippin had once testified to go out and “take the camera and get pictures.” The report also states that another supervisor later saw a worker go into Anderbery’s office and leave remorseful after signing a statement denying that DWP employees ever sleep in their support vans while waiting for a job — even though the vans contain cots.

Sarah Roper, an electrical-station operator, has spent 22 years working for the DWP. “I did not expect this to come up today, but I’ve been involved in several [employment] investigations,” she said. “It is disheartening to see what is done, and what is not done, and to see that it continues into the millennium. You have to look at what can happen in such a toxic environment,” Roper continued. “My job is dangerous. But I’m not afraid of that power system. I’m afraid of my co-workers and my manager. I know how to supply electricity to the citizens of Los Angeles. I did not learn how to play on the school yard with the bullies,” she said to a scattering of applause.

 

“I started with the DWP on January 18, 1982,” said a tearful Debra Engle, a custodian who says she has performed the duties of a supervisor for two and a half years without compensation. “DWP has been my home, my family and my parents,” she said. “I came here young and have become an independent woman, because of the DWP. I’ve raised eight children, because of the DWP. Not one of them has become a statistic.” Engle says that when she filed a grievance, DWP managers denied her overtime pay, hassled her about the dress code and intimidated her by hovering around her workstation. She claims that her union representative and DWP managers sat on her grievance and bounced it back to her after the time to file it in other forums had expired. “Lies. They said they were handling it. They were not,” she said. “I filed a complaint, a protected act. If I had known this would happen, I wouldn’t have put myself through this hell. I’m in a spot where I have to file a lawsuit. I don’t want to do this to this company.”

Labor lawyer Michael Posner represents Flippin and Shrader. Though he specializes in representing organized labor, he took the cases after some initial resistance that faded as he learned more about the DWP. “The power structure in place at the DWP says: ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up, I want to be surrounded by my players, and anyone who rocks the boat will be thrown over,’” Posner says. He sees Flippin’s as a classic case of retaliation, he says. Shrader is treated as a gadfly, Posner says, because he is undeterred by the consequences of speaking out against managers such as Hokinson and Anderbery, both of whom are frequently criticized for allegedly allowing underlings to bully employees who file grievances or testify about the abuse of others.

Shrader has been demoted, disciplined and monitored closely since 2001, when he complained about not getting the manager position he felt he deserved. For more than a decade, he had generated business plans, helped the DWP prepare for Y2K and developed operating policy for the fleet-services unit without commensurate title or pay. “Dan [Shrader] could run circles around his supervisor, but when he complained, they stomped on him,” Posner says of his client, who has a master’s degree and was once a top-rated candidate for fleet-services manager. “They will lie, solicit individuals to lie with promises of rewards, and promote people to temporary assignments only to dump them over later.” (In contrast, one of Shrader’s supervisors has been in a temporary two-week assignment for six years, he says.) But by publicly taking on DWP management, Shrader runs the risk of a Pyrrhic victory if he wins his case before the Employee Relations Board, his lawyer says. “I think they will make a mistake and terminate him on some pretext,” says Posner. “Then I will file a lawsuit for violation of his First Amendment rights. The management at the DWP is either too embarrassed or cannot be bothered by what he has to say.”

 

After hearing veteran employees speak out last month, board president Dominick Rubalcava turned the matter over to Henry Martinez, the DWP’s acting general manager, and Hokinson, assistant general manager in charge of corporate services, to investigate further. Shrader, however, stood up and urged Rubalcava to “use someone other than Hokinson.” At a board meeting two weeks later, only one commissioner, Silvia Saucedo, asked for an update, and Martinez said that he was discussing the matter with Equal Employment Opportunity Services Director Renette Anderson. On Monday, the DWP’s Office of Corporate Communications issued a written statement from Martinez promising a full report to the board later this fall and assuring DWP employees and the public that “we are taking all necessary steps to address these issues.”

Custodians and fleet-services employees are not alone in feeling caught in a maze of discrimination, harassment and retaliation. DWP security officers point to ongoing rampant sexual harassment, despite the landmark $1.5 million Ruby Zilly settlement in 1994. In June, the EEOS found that Senior Security Officer Lorenzo Brazile and Chief Security Officer Jerry Cabrera sexually harassed a female officer and retaliated against her when she complained. Another officer, a married woman, says she has complained about Brazile since 2000, when she alleges that he began asking her out, calling her at home and following her around. She has a worker’s-compensation claim for stress-related injuries, she says. Since she complained, Brazile has been promoted twice. Brazile and Cabrera report to Director of Security Gonzalo Cureton, who reports to Hokinson.

 

Officers allege promotions of Brazile’s ex-wife and sister are signs of nepotism. Brazile and Cabrera, whose wife works for the DWP’s integrated-services section, could not be reached for comment. One security officer says he tried to tell Frank Salas, then the acting general manager, about the harassment allegations, yet nothing was done. “Management does what it wants,” the officer says. “I’ve told them that women are treated like animals on this unit.”

By handing off labor problems to managers entrenched in the institution that gave rise to them, Rubalcava has not instilled confidence in workers that the DWP takes their concerns seriously. Last week, a group of African-American and Latino security officers with the DWP’s General Services unit met with U.S. Justice Department officials from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, visiting from Washington, D.C. The officers have filed a complaint of racial discrimination for alleged recruitment of mostly white officers despite their failure to meet training requirements. “Those positions should go to people with seniority and experience, but instead they are going to the chief’s friends,” says one officer who joined the group in its complaint. The officer says the DWP’s Personnel Department has allowed the unit to change civil-service designations to facilitate the hiring. “The union is looking at it, but we expect them to turn a deaf ear. We thought of going to the City Council, but everyone was afraid it would somehow come back on us. We had to go outside the city for help.”


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