Working at a municipal water department isn’t always easy. There are hazards when working in the confined spaces, and the occasional loud noises reaching over 85 decibels can cause permanent hearing damage. But employees at the Chicago Water Department faced a different type of danger in recent years.
This month, seven employees at the Chicago Water Department filed a class action lawsuit against the department over workplace harassment. In the suit, the plaintiffs claim they had been denied promotions, subjected to racist remarks, and sexually harassed on the basis of their race.
“In 2017, many black people at the Water Department still cannot go to work and make a living without being subject to a hostile work environment,” Derrick Edmond, one of the plaintiffs and an engineer with the department, said to CBS Chicago. “I feel less than the man that I am when I’m talked to disrespectfully.”
That disrespect, according to the lawsuit, included use of the N-word and terms like you people. And when Edmond spoke out, the lawsuit alleges, he faced harsh discipline.
While there are around 16,000 municipal wastewater treatment facilities operating in the United States today, few have faced more scandal than those under the Chicago Water Department, which saw its Commissioner, Barrett Murphy, forced to resign in May.
Murphy’s resignation came after an investigation into the department turned up racist and sexist emails. Two other resignations followed closely after; William Bresnahan, the agency’s managing deputy commissioner, and Paul Hansen, a district superintendent of water distribution.
A spokesperson for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaking to the Chicago Tribune said at the time, “We were made aware of an IG investigation into the culture at the water department. The mayor acted quickly and decisively, asking for the commissioner’s resignation and appointing a new commissioner to lead the department forward and change the department’s culture.”
Unfortunately for the city, the action did not come soon enough. Of the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit, two are women and five are men. While the number of plaintiffs is relatively small so far, attorneys have said there are at least 30 others employees with similar claims
“This lawsuit falls on the heels of our mayor of our city having to acknowledge that the culture of the Water Department is indeed hostile and abusive,” William C. Martin, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, told CBS Chicago. “This is the next step in this admission process.”