On April 25, 1995, JEA apprentice storekeeper Terence 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 said, “This is an old, racist expression of negative treatment to a black who ‘got out of line.’ ”
Adams filed a complaint with an internal JEA liaison to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency charged with investigating workplace violations of the Civil Rights Act. Later that year, the utility reached a settlement with Adams: It wouldn't admit to a violation, but the supervisor would write Adams an apology and admit his comment was inappropriate.
More than 20 years later, new complaints by Adams and four other black JEA employees allege they still face racial discrimination, keeping them from getting promoted.
A JEA spokeswoman told WJCT the utility can’t comment on pending investigations, but it’s working with the EEOC toward a resolution. The company did not respond to further interview requests.
Diversity at JEA
According to the JEA employee handbook, the company embraces diversity by “promoting the recruitment of diverse individuals,” and “engaging in recruitment practices that mirror the population.”
CEO Paul McElroy, who took over in 2012, echoes the sentiment with a personal letter printed under the handbook’s diversity promise.
“JEA is a community-owned utility; therefore, we have a higher responsibility to reflect the community we serve,” McElroy wrote. “Our customers are changing and we need to mirror that change internally.”
Thirty percent of Jacksonville residents are African-American, according to the U.S. Census. Yet JEA personnel records obtained by WJCT show, between 2010 and 2016, less than 15 percent of all new hires were black. This year, less than 10 percent of new hires were black, compared with 70 percent who were white.
And despite McElroy’s stated intention, every year since 2011, the total number of black employees has slightly declined.
Amount of black and white employees by percentage:
- 2011: 17.9 percent black/75.6 percent white
- 2012: 17.7 percent black/75.5 percent white
- 2013: 17.5 percent black/75.5 percent white
- 2014: 17.6 percent black/75.01 percent white
- 2015: 16.9 percent black/75.3 percent white
There are two main types of jobs at JEA: appointed and civil service. Applicants for appointed positions must submit resumes and have an interview. They’re not required to take a written test.
Civil service applicants are also required to demonstrate their capability by scoring at least 70 percent on a standardized test administered by Florida State College at Jacksonville.
For civil service positions, JEA combines the written test score with an interview score for a composite. Current employees are given extra points depending on seniority. All prospective employees are given the same questions, but complainants argue the scoring rubric isn't transparent and is too subjective, making it easy for managers to skirt employment regulations in order to hire who they want to.
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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Created in 1965 after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the EEOC investigates complaints and sometimes prosecutes noncompliant, uncooperative companies for violations.
Aggrieved employees can file a complaint internally with a local EEOC representative or send a letter to the regional or national headquarters. Once the agency reviews the item and believes the complaint might be legitimate, the employee is asked to sign formal charges of discrimination. Those charges do not necessarily mean criminal charges are forthcoming.
But Jacksonville Human Rights Commissioner Nathan Rousseau said if complaints are bogus or unprovable, employees usually receive word quickly.
“I think that if the EEOC thought these to be insignificant, then this would be known by now,” Rousseau said.
All five complaints known to WJCT were filed with the EEOC’s regional office in Miami between June of 2015 and April of 2016. Rousseau said the fact that the cases are still open suggests the agency is taking them seriously.
A Missed Call
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 an incident kept Fielder from getting a promotion that he said he truly felt discriminated against.
As he said in his complaint, 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 stays on an employee’s record for two years, and during that 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. “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 he was told he would get a letter of reprimand anyway. Then Fielder filed a grievance with his union and ultimately a complaint with the EEOC. Management eventually relented and scaled back his reprimand to what’s called a letter of counseling, or a written warning. Fielder believes that’s only because a younger, white employee missed a call at the same time, and his supervisors were grooming him for a similar promotion.
Job Not Posted
Michael DeVaughn is the longest serving JEA employee of the group, with 34 years of experience. 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.
Just Missed Cut-Off
Four-year JEA employee Alfonzo Johnson is an inventory control technician who started off as a temp and moved up to become a full-time civil service employee in 2013. According to his complaint, Johnson believed he was the only internal candidate who passed the hiring test, and said 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 investigator with the EEOC 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,” Johnson said.
Top of the Class
JEA warehouse storekeeper Terence Adams has stuck it out with JEA since his 1995 complaint, bringing his time there to close to 30 years. Adams, a senior member of his team, thought he was a shoe-in for a supervisor position last year, so he applied.
“Back in July of 2015, they gave a promotional test for a working foreman. Basically it’s a supervisor’s position. I took the particular test and I came out number one with a 90,” Adams said.
Adams new complaint said 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 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 passed up for special assignments, despite having “above satisfactory” or “satisfactory” employment evaluations and a wealth of experience.
In his complaint, Owens detailed a particular instance when he applied for an appointed management position. He said he had by far the most experience, but he was passed up in favor of a white applicant with fewer years with JEA without sufficient explanation.
A Way Forward
Alfonzo Johnson said the EEOC has offered to expedite the investigation process with mediation but JEA has refused. Johnson said he and his fellow complainants have also had meetings with Mayor Lenny Curry’s senior staff, including Chief of Staff Kerri Stewart and Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa, for a resolution to no avail. Johnson said he’s also requested to meet with the mayor directly through a letter he sent to his office, but so far hasn't gotten a response.
In response to questions about the complaints, mayoral spokeswoman Tia Ford sent this emailed statement:
“Members of the mayor’s leadership team met with several of the employees earlier this year, per the complainants’ request. There are no next steps for or additional involvement with the City of Jacksonville. JEA, which is an independent authority, has advised of their commitment to conducting and contributing to a complete investigation.”
A full EEOC investigation could take years to complete, and the complainants said they’re looking into whether combining their charge into a class-action complaint will move the process along faster.