By Pam Zubeck
In one office, a noose is left next to a Black employee’s workspace. In another, white workers blare rap music that uses the N-word or an adulterated version, all within close proximity to their Black co-workers.
While white employees enjoy the benefit of overtime pay on a routine basis at one company, Black workers never get that opportunity and, instead, are accused of lying on their timecards.
Then there’s the elected official who publicly referred to one of his employees as “my wetback.”
All those scenarios took place in the Pikes Peak region. Surprised? Employment lawyer Donna Dell’Olio isn’t.
“Racism is alive and well in Colorado Springs employment,” she said.
Despite the advent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission, which dates to the 1950s, and the adoption of Affirmative Action policies designed to give people of color a fair shake in hiring and promotions, racism still emerges in subtle and not-so-subtle ways in the workplace.
But things might be changing. Some people seem more open to delving into racial bias on the job.
“We know that inequality is a real issue,” Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC CEO Dirk Draper said via email, “and that to make any progress starts with education and understanding.
“Last summer, the Chamber & EDC adopted a diversity and inclusion strategy,” he said, noting it launched a Diversity in the Workplace committee to identify best practices, tools, resources, and ideas “to help build a strong and inclusive business community.”
Moreover, in 2019 the Chamber chose Black businessman Jacob Pruitt, vice president and general manager for T. Rowe Price’s Colorado Springs office, as its first African American board chairman.
But demands for racial justice that erupted after the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis while in police custody aren’t likely to target only the criminal justice system. Protests have drawn millions across the nation for weeks, and the same quest for equity could envelop the debate over workplace discrimination.
Some say it’s past due.
THE GLASS CEILING
Carlos Sanchez became a United States citizen while serving 26 years in the Navy where he noticed that people of color — never white people — drew the heavy-lifting assignments, such as loading supplies onto aircraft carriers.
In the late 1980s, he worked as a jailer for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office. Things went well for several years, because he never interfaced with Sheriff Bernie Barry. But after he transferred to the training division, he saw the sheriff almost daily.
Then, in 1992, Barry publicly singled him out by calling Sanchez “my wetback,” a pejorative term for Mexican immigrant, during a deputy graduation ceremony.
“It was embarrassing,” Sanchez said, “because he did it in front of a graduating class, and the parents and kids of the graduating class, they all looked at me.”
Barry dismissed the incident as a “joke,” but later faced a lawsuit filed by Sanchez, and when he tried for a fourth four-year sheriff’s term in 1994, he failed to qualify for the Republican primary ballot.
In 1996, Sanchez settled his case for $32,000, about a year’s pay at the time. Since then, he worked at the Department of Corrections and now runs his own investigations business. But the lingering impact of that experience and the bias he observed in the Navy embittered him.
“I don’t care what anybody says, you’re not going to get rid of it [racism],” he said.
Fast forward nearly 30 years, and racism continues to undermine workplace equity in the private sector and inside public agencies.
In 2018, a Black police sergeant collected $30,000 from the city of Fountain in a settlement of his racial bias claim in which he alleged officials purged people of color from the command staff; one member “routinely” using the N-word in his presence, his attorney, Andrew Swan, said.
Colorado Springs has paid out at least $434,000 in claims in the last decade that alleged, at least in part, racial or national origin discrimination.
Candace Zamora Bridgers, a former financial division employee who settled her case for $95,000, accused the city of “a long-standing discriminatory pattern directed against Hispanics that denies Hispanics advancement opportunities once they hit a glass ceiling.”
Bridgers was targeted, she alleged, after standing up for finance official Terri Velasquez, who also alleged discrimination after being fired. She settled her case for $250,000. The city also reached an $89,500 deal following mediation with an unnamed employee who alleged discrimination based on age and national origin.
Asked about that, the city pointed to its fair hiring practices policies, which promote diversity.
MORE THAN LAWS NEEDED
Dell’Olio said racism in the workplace keeps her busy, and she doubts that most workers whose rights are violated seek legal advice.
Leaving a noose for a Black person to find, blasting music that uses the N-word, calling someone a monkey, physically harassing them and claiming it was just teasing — these are stories she and her partner, Ian Kalmanowitz, hear on a regular basis.
Dell’Olio said in an interview the blacker the skin, the more severe the treatment. One highly professional Black woman was accused of lying on her timecard, which Dell’Olio said falls in line with a common mistreatment of Black people as cheats.
“What’s frustrating is the tolerance by federal judges for racist behavior,” she said. “We had one judge hold that using the word ‘n****r’ alone doesn’t create a hostile work environment. If that doesn’t create a hostile work environment, that’s pretty shocking.”
In another case, management accused several Black people who gathered to pray at the beginning of their shift of scaring people and creating a disturbance by saying, “Amen.”
In another, after a Black woman complained of racism and an internal investigation failed to substantiate discrimination, she got written up for filing a false claim.
In yet another, a white manager commented to a Black employee who had hired several Black people, “It’s getting darker over there.”
Many employers who fight discrimination claims and lose or decide to settle then insist that confidentiality be part of the deal.
“That keeps people from finding out about it,” Kalmanowitz said, and eliminates the possibility that customers might boycott a racist business.
Dell’Olio hopes the protests bring a new day for the workplace as well as for the criminal justice system.
“I see this as an opportunity for change,” she said.
But she and Kalmanowitz remain skeptical.
“Employment discrimination against people of color, women, people with disabilities, and other minority groups is still a real problem in this country,” Kalmanowitz said in an email. “While we have laws prohibiting discrimination, those laws have not stopped people from engaging in racist or discriminatory practices at work. It will take more than laws to eradicate this injustice; fixing this problem requires people to recognize their own biases and work hard to overcome them. From what we have seen and continue to see, we’ve all still got a lot of work to do.”
WILL KEEP YOUR RÉSUMÉ ON FILE
When it comes to discrimination in hiring, studies have shown that names matter, said Regina Walter, a retired magistrate judge who runs Educating Our Children of Color and Diversity University, a course in cultural inclusion.
“If your name is white American, you’re more likely to get a call back from an employer than if you have a name attributed to a different race or ethnicity,” she said. “Jason is going to get a call back before Julio or Tenesha.”
And that has given rise to “white-washing” résumés to remove or change names that “sound Black,” she said, along with references that would portray a strong ethnic identity, such as memberships in organizations specific to people of color.
“The way implicit bias plays out most is, you’re more likely to give a hand up to the in-crowd, to the people more like you,” said Walter, who’s white. “It’s true in employment and also true if I want an internship. I’m more likely to get it than my Black counterpart, because most people who are giving internships will be giving them to the in-group.”
Moreover, internships often are unpaid, and socioeconomically disadvantaged minority candidates are more likely to have to work for pay rather than take on an unpaid internship, she said.
“That continues to reinforce systemic racism. It’s only people with money and connections that can afford that opportunity,” Walter said. “In order to get to some equity, we have to be willing to look at this résumé and say, ‘This kid has been working nonstop for the last six years,’ instead of being impressed with all these internships. We have to think differently about the things we value when we’re assessing employment.”
If two finalists for a job both have a criminal record, the white person will likely be chosen over the Black person, she said.
A 2018 study by Texas A&M University found that minority job applicants with “strong racial identities” may encounter less pay and lower odds of getting hired, theconversation.com reported.
And despite efforts at diversity in the last decade or two, a 2017 Northwestern University study concluded that discrimination in hiring against Black people and Latinos hadn’t changed since 1989, “although we do find some indication of declining discrimination against Latinos,” an abstract of the study said. “The results document a striking persistence of racial discrimination in US labor markets.”
Walter’s advice: “In hiring practices, if you evaluate the résumés without looking at the names, that may diversify the number of employees [of color] you have. The more diverse employment, the better perspective you’ll be getting on all kinds of issues.”
But hiring is just the first step. “You also have to make the environment of your company one where voices get heard and that you encourage the voice who is unlikely to speak out because they have historically been marginalized,” Walter said. “It means not only employing people different than you, but giving them a platform and knowledge they are on equal footing on giving input.”
While her Diversity University saw enrollment skyrocket amid Black Lives Matter demonstrations, so far Walter’s organization hasn’t paired with local entities for workplace training, she said.
“We would love to facilitate training for businesses in Colorado Springs,” she said.
To that, Janet Brugger would say “Hear, hear!” The president of the local Black Chamber of Commerce and owner of a consulting company, Brugger said racial bias still exists in the work world, with Black women being the most discriminated against.
“We have that double negative against us,” she said, being women and being Black. “If you are a strong, competent, confident woman, you are the angry Black female.”
Brugger knows people who have applied for jobs for which they were more qualified than the white person who was ultimately chosen.
That leads her to advocate for forcing businesses to recruit diverse candidates. There are plenty of publications that cater to Black executives, she noted, adding, “Do companies recruit in those? No.”
The Economic Policy Institute agrees.
“Occupational segregation is particularly devastating for black women, who face a history of deep-seated racial and gender discrimination,” senior economist Elise Gould wrote in a February 2019 blog on the nonprofit think tank’s website titled, “Stark black–white divide in wages is widening further.”
Gould notes the wage disparity between Black and white people is the narrowest at the bottom of the scale where the minimum wage “keeps the lowest-wage black workers from even lower wages.”
Even if Black people pursue education to close the wage gap, Gould said that racial wealth gaps “have been almost entirely unmoved.
“Black workers can’t simply educate their way out of the gap,” she said.
According to Census data from 2014 to 2018, median annual income of Black heads of households in Colorado earned 30 percent less than white heads of households, $49,634 compared to $71,221. Native Americans showed a wider disparity with an annual income of $46,082. Hispanic heads of households earned 26 percent less than all state heads of households. (Census data didn’t report Hispanic incomes the same way as other races.)
In El Paso County, those gaps weren’t as severe but remained significant. Black heads of households were paid 23 percent less than white people — $52,406 compared to $68,341. Native American heads of households did slightly better, at $53,676, and Hispanic heads of households earned 20 percent less than all county residents.
Moreover, in a mid-June report amid the Black Lives Matter protests, the Colorado Independent noted white homeownership is nearly double that of Black people in Colorado.
In a stunning revelation, The New York Times reported June 25 that the wage gap between Black and white men is the same today as it was in 1950. Black men earn 51 cents for every dollar white men earn. (While government statistics show that gap narrowed to 67 cents for Black men, research that takes into account Black men who have stopped looking for work or have been incarcerated put the figure at 51 cents.)
The Times explained the gap this way: “The minimum wage has stagnated in some states, unions have shrunk, tax rates on the wealthy have fallen more than they have for anyone else and incomes for the bottom 90 percent — and especially the bottom half — have trailed economic growth. Black workers, again, are disproportionately in these lower-income groups.”
To address all that, the Chamber & EDC last month joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s national townhall to discuss actions government and the private sector can take to confront inequality through education, employment, entrepreneurship and criminal justice reform. The local Chamber also vowed in a news release to “host local and industry dialogues to further the discussion,” but didn’t explain how.
“Inequality happens at both the macro and micro levels of society,” Draper said in the release. “By joining this initiative, we can learn from and participate in national and local conversations that will help our business community grow together. We’re committed to listening, educating ourselves as a team, and being a part of the solution.”
He said via email that of 24 business leaders on the Chamber’s board, 17 percent are people of color and 29 percent are women, which, he said, affords “leadership perspectives from diverse cultures and backgrounds. As we recruit new board members — who are nominated by Chamber & EDC members — our governance committee has the opportunity to recruit from a diverse pool of candidates who will help us define and implement the Chamber & EDC’s strategic vision,” Draper said.
Conversely, training based on the Skillful Talent Series, offered by the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, tries to eliminate the race factor rather than specifically seeking out applicants of color. Here’s how: Businesses are encouraged to reduce bias by removing credential requirements in job postings and using competencies specific to the job instead.
Some companies have taken the additional step of directly supporting minorities’ fight for equity. T. Rowe Price announced June 18 that it had committed $2 million to groups “working to fight racial injustice.” That’s beyond the Baltimore-based firm’s $2.4 million in donations following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody in Baltimore.
“My hope is that we are at an inflection point and that our actions and voice will contribute to the encouraging momentum behind the call for racial justice,” company President and CEO Bill Stromberg said in a release.
While such moves can help a business align with the nation’s increasingly diverse population, it’s been asserted that multiracial workforces actually lead to higher profitability.
Boston Consulting Group, a professional services firm, examined 1,700 companies of various sizes and industries in eight countries, concluding that those with more diverse management teams report 19 percent higher revenue due to innovation.
“People with different backgrounds and experiences often see the same problem in different ways and come up with different solutions, increasing the odds that one of those solutions will be a hit,” the BCG website said, calling for diversity to be “baked into” every aspect of a company.
DISRUPT THE PROCESS
That’s a contested claim, said Kevin Brown, the Richard S. Melvin Professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law.
“The issue is the workforce is changing,” he said. “The racial makeup of our workforce is becoming increasingly minority. From a business standpoint, you won’t be able to get around not hiring minorities, and if they [people of color] have choices of where to work, they’re not going to work for your company if it has a reputation [for racial discrimination].”
Brown, who teaches courses on race, American society and the law, asserts that current anti-discrimination laws serve merely as a check on the most egregious behavior, but not much beyond that.
Frequently, he said, employers make a cost-benefit analysis and simply pay $20,000 or $30,000 to settle a claim without admitting culpability rather than face huge attorney bills in battling a lawsuit.
“If you truly wanted to change the law,” he said, “I would change the presumption and have the employer prove their actions were not discriminatory rather than the other way around. That would make a big difference, and you’d see employers doing a lot of things just to get themselves in the position so they could prove they weren’t discriminatory.”
Making gains in overturning workplace discrimination, he said, requires people to become consciously aware of their biases and understand they can’t trust their normal judgment.
“So now they’re questioning themselves, which is very uncomfortable,” Brown said. “You’ve got to disrupt the natural thinking process.”