Berkeley holds meeting on city employees’ complaints of workplace discrimination

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Ariel D. Hayat/Staff

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City officials and residents called for further investigation into the scope of Berkeley’s potential workplace problems at a Tuesday meeting addressing complaints by Berkeley employees of nepotism and discrimination.

The meeting addressed issues raised by a report released by Mason Tillman Associates Ltd. — a research firm hired by the city — in May, which interviewed 20 former and current Berkeley employees who had complained to the NAACP. The complaints included allegations that the city paid white male employees more than other employees and manipulated job criteria to favor certain employees, sparking an ongoing conversation about how to make the city’s workplace more inclusive.

“The overall discussion (Tuesday) night truly documented the fact that Berkeley has a very serious problem,” said Mansour Id-Deen, president of the Berkeley NAACP.

The report also included complaints of employees being given responsibilities beyond their pay classification and employees of color being discouraged from seeking promotions.

The city has responded to the report by releasing an action plan to audit the human resources department, train managers and supervisors responsible for hiring, conduct equal employment opportunity workshops and hold diversity training. City staff hope to complete the hiring training by June and implement a pilot program for the diversity training by spring.

Id-Deen called the plan “premature.” He and others who spoke at the meeting urged the city to extend its contract with Mason Tillman Associates to verify the legitimacy of the NAACP complaints in a more extensive investigation.

According to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko, the city is still considering such comments but has made no decisions about extending the contract.

“We are dedicated to making sure that the city is a place where all employees are treated fairly, so we are deeply committed to addressing the important concerns raised last night,” Chakko said in an email.

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Eleanor Ramsey, president of Mason Tillman Associates, also emphasized the need to gather more information about the city’s current situation, recommending that additional research be done through focus groups and surveys and that the city publish the number of equal employment opportunity complaints each department has received.

Council members echoed these concerns and made their own suggestions for taking further action, including a proposal by Councilmember Max Anderson to implement a whistleblower ordinance.

“Let’s do it right,” said Councilmember Darryl Moore at the meeting. “If we’re going to do a training … is it management? Is it staff? Who needs the training?”

Union members who spoke at the meeting suggested that the problems brought forth by the 20 complainants are widespread. Paula Phillips, president of the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees, said at the meeting that employees at Berkeley Unified School District have experienced similar issues. Ron Rhone, a field representative of SEIU Local 1021, pointed to a survey conducted by the union in which almost half of about 300 Berkeley employees interviewed reported experiencing or seeing illegal discrimination at work.

“It’s broad based,” Id-Deen said. “It’s not just African Americans that are expressing the need for change in Berkeley. We will continue to work with the city … to try to come to solutions that will help Berkeley regain its level of progressiveness that the world knows it for.”

Melissa Wen is the lead city news reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @melissalwen.

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