Durham News

Durham panel sets steps to deal with bias complaints

The Human Relations Commission settled on nine recommendations for addressing racial disparities in the city water management department’s treatment of employees, but stopped short of asking that the city manager review former employees’ individual cases.

Commissioner Diane Standaert suggested such a review, in response to several former employees’ testimony to the commission. “People’s lives have been affected,” she said.

Other commissioners, though, said that would be over-reaching the commission’s role and could lead to what Commissioner Ricky Hart called “a Pandora’s Box.

“I can just imagine thousands of ex-employees coming to HRC,” he said, adding that those who feel they were wrongly terminated have other recourses, including the courts.

The HRC settled on what it will suggest at a special meeting this week, and plans to report them to the City Council later this summer. They are results of a six-month investigation of current and former water employees’ allegations of discriminatory discipline, promotions and firings, and retaliation against black employees who raised issues about bias.

Water department Director Don Greeley denies those claims. Responding to the HRC’s invitation for comment, in a June 3 memo Greeley wrote:

“While the management of (the department of water management) finds no basis for these claims, we are constantly striving to improve our workplace and we welcome suggestions, recommendations and constructive feedback to improve practices and programs within our department.”

The HRC, though, in a draft introduction to its recommendations, states that it is “concerned that racial disparities exist” in Greeley’s department.

Commissioners are advising that the water department recruit and train female as well as black employees in lower-level positions for promotion supervisory jobs, after finding gender as well as racial disparities in department personnel records.

They also recommended that the city actively encourage women to apply for jobs in the water department, where commissioners found no female work-crew members or crew chiefs.

“We’re doing a holistic approach to correcting some problems,” Standaert said. “Not just white versus black.”

By the numbers

Among other recommendations were racial equity training for water department employees, reviews of water department hirings and promotions by the city human-resources office and a report from the city human-resources office on the results of measures it has already put in place to counter racial disparities in the department.

Last fall, Mayor Bill Bell asked the Commission, a 15-member volunteer body of city residents, to look into the water department after employees brought their complaints to a City Council work session.

Several months earlier, the HRC had completed a probe of alleged racial bias among Durham police and delivered recommendations, some of which have become city policy.

The Human Relations Commission does not have authority to see confidential personnel records, or to investigate or make recommendations regarding individuals’ cases. It can report findings based on documents and citizens’ statements, and make policy recommendations to city officials.

When Bell made the request, the city’s human resources staff was already conducting a statistical analysis of water-department personnel records. That analysis, delivered in December, found a significant disparity in the number of disciplinary actions taken against minority and white employees from 2011 to 2014.

Several former employees repeated their complaints at HRC meetings, and an ad hoc committee of four commissioners requested and reviewed hundreds of pages of personnel records from the city.

Those records included several years’ demotion and termination statistics and complaints from employee satisfaction surveys and other information.

That data showed a lack of black employees in supervisory positions, and a disparity in terminations. For example, from 2008 through 2014, 34 black water department employees were terminated, vs. 13 white. Work-crew records showed five white crew chiefs out of 13 white employees, but just seven black chiefs out of 69 black workers.

Beyond water

The nine final recommendations are an expanded and revised set from six the Human Relations Commission previously received from its ad hoc committee.

Besides four recommendations specific to the water department, the commission is making five touching all city departments:

▪  A peer-elected forum of city employees, including supervisors, to build relationships across department lines, similar to one instituted in Chapel Hill;

▪  Simplified grievance policies, which now involve several different procedures and, in the committee’s opinion, “are difficult for employees to navigate”;

▪  That the City Council re-examine the city’s drug-testing policies, to guard against disparities city records showed in drug-related firings;

▪  That the City Council “examine” the city manager’s authority to overturn recommendations by the grievance hearing panel, and “research best practices in other jurisdictions.”

Wise: 919-641-5895