CHARGED with Racism

At the tail end of September 2016, Jacksonville University sociology professor Nathan Rousseau donned a pair of oversized Sony headphones and sat down with “First Coast Connect” host Melissa Ross in the brightly lit Studio Five at WJCT.

Throughout the next 35-or-so minutes, Rousseau, an unassuming, quick-witted, yet soft-spoken Ph.D. graduate of the University of Oregon, expatiated on race relations in Jacksonville, calmly and empathetically explaining the intersection of economic inequality, residual Jim Crow racism and violence to listeners and, sometimes, angry and impassioned callers.

It was Rousseau’s gentle teaching method and stern command of complicated sociological history that first inspired Alfonzo Johnson to sign up for a couple of introductory classes between 2012 and 2013 with the sociologist and Jacksonville Human Rights Commissioner.

Johnson, an employee of JEA, built a strong relationship with Rousseau, who regards him as one of his most accomplished students. By the time Johnson graduated in December 2015, it was easy for them to keep in touch.

While some college graduates were twirling tassels and spamming their families’ Instagram feeds with 100 identical pictures of smiles belying the reality of crushing student debt, Johnson was fighting a different, very private battle.

A child of the Deep South, Johnson had Mississippi roots that branched out to Tennessee, then finally Jacksonville in 2005. A Navy man discharged for medical reasons, he began his Northeast Florida career as a temp at JEA, eventually moving up to become an inventory control technician in 2013.

As a black man from the state Nina Simone excoriated in her civil rights anthem “Mississippi Goddam,” Johnson was always acutely aware of the country’s fractured racial history. So, when he began to feel excluded from the internal hiring pipeline at the Southeast’s largest community-owned utility, it wasn’t in his nature to stay quiet.

Johnson filed a discrimination complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in June 2015, alleging he had been routinely passed over for promotions in favor of less-qualified, non-black colleagues and outside applicants. Around the same time, he confided in his former professor. It turned out he was not alone. By April 2016, four more black JEA employees would also file complaints.

Rousseau advised the five employees, who combined have more than a century of work experience, that going to the city’s Human Rights Commission might be unproductive. Budgetary cutbacks during the recession had shrunk its staff; and with a growing number of vacancies on the board and a ballooning backlog of cases, it wasn’t likely that the commission would make much headway. Instead, Rousseau agreed to work as the group’s unofficial spokesman, and together they met with top brass from the mayor’s office, City Councilman Garrett Dennis and the local branch of the NAACP.

Those private meetings failed to bear fruit. There were no public pronouncements, open letters posted, press conferences called or bills filed. So when Rousseau left Studio Five that day in late September, he walked directly into WJCT’s newsroom with a story.

The five EEOC complaints are in different stages within the federal process, but all employees have signed official charges of discrimination. These charges are a step beyond simple complaints in that, official charges indicate that federal investigators have found just enough evidence to initiate a formal inquiry but haven’t yet determined whether discrimination actually occurred.

Rousseau said the fact that the complaints weren’t rejected outright means the federal agency in charge of enforcing civil rights employment law is taking them very seriously.

“I think that if the EEOC thought these to be insignificant, then this would be known by now,” he said.

Proving discrimination is a steep mountain to climb. Sometimes, unlike Sisyphus, complainants never reach the peak. After years of waiting, it’s not uncommon for people to give up on pushing the boulders of bureaucratic paperwork uphill in favor of being given the right to sue their employer before the conclusion of a full federal investigation.

For their part, the JEA employees say they’re in it for the long haul, and most, but not yet all, have already been informally given the right to sue. (A formal “Notice of Right to Sue” must be issued by the EEOC for an employee to sue their employer under the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972.)

Representatives for JEA said the company can’t comment on pending investigations but have said the utility is taking the complaints “seriously” and working with the EEOC toward a resolution.

The official charges of discrimination, as first reported by WJCT, are as follows:

Inventory Control Technician Ralph Fielder has been working for JEA for 15 years. He said he always felt like he was an outsider in the mostly white workplace, but he never felt the need to file a complaint.

“It’s kind of like the ‘good ol’ boy’ network. You know, the ‘good ol’ boy’ system,” Fielder said.

It wasn’t until, he said, an incident kept him from getting a promotion that he truly felt discriminated against.

As in his complaint, Fielder indicated certain JEA employees are required to be on call. If an employee who’s on call fails to pick up the phone, they’re given a written reprimand.

That reprimand remains on an employee’s record for two years, during which time they’re disqualified from applying for new jobs.

Fielder said a misunderstanding led him to miss a call. After negotiations with his supervisor, he said he was told to write an apology letter in order to avoid being written up.

“I’m a 50-something-year-old man, and I feel that you’re harassing me,” Fielder said of his supervisor’s order. “You’re belittling me also. You’re trying to humiliate me.”

Not wanting to be disqualified from the promotion, Fielder wrote the letter and turned it in. But later he was told he would get an official reprimand anyway. Fielder subsequently filed a grievance with his union and ultimately a complaint with the EEOC. Management eventually relented and scaled the reprimand back to a letter of counseling, or written warning. Fielder believes that his reprimand was scaled back only because a younger, white employee missed a call at the same time, and his supervisors were grooming him for a promotion.

With 34 years of experience, Michael DeVaughn is the longest-serving JEA employee of the group. Like Fielder, DeVaughn said he always felt somewhat excluded, and eventually that feeling boiled over when he was passed up for a promotion.

In his complaint, DeVaughn alleges a supervisor created a new truck-driving trainer position with a less-experienced, white employee in mind, and the supervisor didn’t post it internally until DeVaughn complained.

“I’m quite sure she was upset about it, but she posted it. Still, she gave it to the same guy who asked for it in the first place,” DeVaughn said.

According to JEA’s website, the utility generally posts jobs internally for at least two weeks before making a hiring decision or opening the position to outside applicants.

DeVaughn said between his stellar employment evaluations and his years of experience, he should’ve had it in the bag. His performance reviews show DeVaughn was rated “above satisfactory” every year since 2009.

JEA warehouse storekeeper Terence Adams has remained with JEA since filing a previous complaint 12 years ago. On April 25, 1995, Adams was attending a safety meeting helmed by his supervisor, David Cobb. Just prior, Adams had suffered an accidental spray of hydraulic fluid into his eyes, and coworkers helped him rinse out the chemical. During the meeting, when Adams thanked his colleagues for their quick response, Cobb replied with a quip about scrubbing down Adams, who is black, with lye soap.

Adams wrote in his complaint, “This is an old, racist expression of negative treatment to a black who ‘got out of line.’”

Adams filed his complaint with an internal JEA liaison to the EEOC. Later that year, the utility reached a settlement with Adams: It would not admit to a violation, but the supervisor would write him an apology and admit the comment was inappropriate.

Last year, Adams, a senior member of his team, thought he was a shoo-in for a supervisory position, so he applied.

“Back in July of 2015, they gave a promotional test for a working foreman,” Adams said. “I took the particular test, and I came out No. 1 with a 90.”

Adams’ current complaint alleges he bested his closest opponent, a white man with less experience, by eight points. However, after the interview process, which is also scored and averaged with the written test, he lost the job by two points.

Donell Owens started as a trainee and has worked his way up to field engineer in the 25 years he’s been with JEA. But he feels that eventually being black meant he hit a glass ceiling.

“Even [if] we have the same title here, you don’t necessarily get the same assignments. And if you don’t get the same assignments, it means you don’t get the same training, which means you don’t get the opportunity to be promoted,” Owens said.

He said he has been consistently left out of consideration for special assignments, despite having “above satisfactory” or “satisfactory” employment evaluations.

In his complaint, Owens details a particular instance when he applied for an appointed management position. He said he had by far the most experience, but was disregarded in favor of a white applicant
who had fewer years with JEA, without sufficient explanation.

According to Johnson’s complaint, he was the only internal candidate for a warehouse management position who passed the hiring test, but a less-qualified external applicant received preferential treatment during the interview.

“A couple of weeks before I got the scores, I found out that I wasn’t getting the job. So, when I got the results from the interview — passing was a 70, and I scored a 69 — that was one of the questions that the EEOC investigator raised: ‘Why didn’t you score a 71 or why didn’t you score a 68?’ And I think that just spoke to the subjectivity of the whole process,” he said.

In early November, WJCT received this response from the mayor’s office:

“There are no next steps for or additional involvement with the City of Jacksonville,” the emailed statement read. “JEA, which is an independent authority, has advised of their commitment to conducting and contributing to a complete investigation.”

After publishing the stories, WJCT received a small ripple of responses from others at JEA. A few tips were dead-ends to personal grudges, and others were as nonsensical as the complete poetic works of James Franco. But one anonymous source who works at the utility sent printouts of two internal JEA email chains from 2007.

Employees were passing around precursors of memes with overtly racist pictures and text.

One email with the subject line, “Father’s Day in the Hood,” played into the stereotype of black absentee fathers. It contained an image of several black men running away from a black child, who holds a sign asking for his daddy.

The second message’s subject line was, “The Last Child Support Check.” It’s a story told in first person using broken English reminiscent of slave narratives. At the bottom was a picture of an open-mouthed black man, missing teeth, shocked he’d been paying for a child who wasn’t his after all.

At least five of the employees who shared the offensive content still work at the company, and at least one has been promoted to a supervisory position since 2007.

JEA’s human resources chief Angie Hiers got out in front of the story immediately and said the utility had launched an internal investigation into what JEA maintains was an isolated incident.

“We want to make sure that employees understand that those things aren’t funny because they are offensive to others,” Hiers said. “They’re not things that should be passed around via email or even joked about in the workplace.”

Still, Alfonzo Johnson said, it’s more than just two emails — the messages indicate a wider cultural problem at JEA.

“There’s definitely a systemic issue, and JEA doesn’t want to address it,” Johnson said. “I think the way they’ve dealt with it in the past is they deal with each individual case, but we want to bring more light to this so it’s not an individual thing. It can be looked at for exactly what it is and that’s systemic discrimination.”

As JEA noted, some of the employees who shared the racist jokes are black. Johnson said everyone who forwarded the messages should be reprimanded, regardless of skin color.

After the emails were published, WJCT reached out to some of the city’s black leaders. One of the biggest disappointments for the JEA five, they said, was feeling as if the leaders in their community aren’t doing enough to support their cause.

One employee, Ralph Fielder, goes to church with Councilman Dennis, and a few others in the group say they’ve campaigned for him. So when he dropped off the radar months after agreeing to help them in City Council, Fielder was incensed.

Dennis told WJCT he was slowly and carefully working toward a resolution.

“If I’m going to go out there and be an advocate and help change the culture, I want to go with facts. I don’t want to go with emotions or perceptions, but facts,” he said.

Dennis said he’s been meeting with JEA officials monthly since May, though a JEA spokeswoman said they’ve met just twice.

Eventually, Dennis filed a bill that he said is meant to incentivize independent city authorities like JEA to hire more non-white employees.

Currently, just under 17 percent of JEA’s workforce is African-American, while the census puts the black population in Jacksonville above 30 percent.

Dennis said the intent of his proposal is to “embarrass” companies into hiring more people of color by forcing them to present their demographic reports to the City Council every year around budget time. The measure doesn’t mention penalties or punishment for not meeting diversity goals.

The JEA five say they are just as disappointed with the leaders of the city’s major civil rights organizations as they are with elected officials. Their complaints, coupled with a 2013 diversity study that found city contracts generally go to white businesses, have sowed discord among the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the local chapter of the group Martin Luther King founded), the Urban League and the NAACP.

The leaders of the “big three,” Richard Danford of the Urban League, Juan Gray of the SCLC and Isaiah Rumlin of the NAACP, can’t seem to agree on a strategy to address a host of racial disparities in the city.

Gray, by far the most vocal of the three, has suggested boycotting Jacksonville’s annual MLK Breakfast next year (though the JEA five questioned why they didn’t walk out of this year’s), while Danford is straddling the fence, and Rumlin is steadfast in making sure the event continues.

Meanwhile, the mayor has appointed First Timothy Baptist Church Pastor Fred Newbill to the JEA board. Newbill has been conspicuously silent on these charges of racial discrimination, despite having been one of the most vocal critics of former Duval County Circuit Judge Mark Hulsey, who stepped down last month after the state Judicial Qualifications Commission found evidence he had a history of anti-black and sexist remarks.

The JEA five all say they don’t want to leave the company, that they like their work and are simply trying to make changes where they see a need. And they agree the utility has made some strides in recent years to diversify its workforce. Still, the black population at JEA has seen a small annual decline since 2011. This, despite the fact that CEO Paul McElroy, who took the helm in 2012, printed a letter in the employee handbook saying he wanted the workforce to “mirror” the community.

JEA leaders have acknowledged its demographic gaps and are engaging in some educational and community partnerships to create a hiring pipeline from underserved communities. Most recently, the company hooked up with Florida State College at Jacksonville and Sandalwood High School to educate, train and hire up to 25 students a year for cyber security jobs.

JEA diversity manager Pat Sams told WJCT, “Programs like this offer a huge opportunity for these students, but for these kinds of programs, may not have an opportunity to have an internship. Regardless of what socioeconomic or ZIP code you live in, that’s huge,” she said.

There’s no telling just how long it’ll take for the JEA five to receive some finality in their cases, whether the charges are proved or dismissed. After charging Jacksonville Fire & Rescue with unfair testing and discriminatory hiring practices in 2004, black firefighters in the city traversed a similar journey. Though the U.S. Department of Justice concluded in 2012 that discrimination had occurred, the group only reached a settlement just last month.

Read more about the JEA five at