Through epithets, assignments and pressure to retire, the center created a hostile workplace, the suit says.
A federal lawsuit served last week alleges a deep-seated and longstanding pattern of racial and age bias in hiring, promotion and work assignments at the city-owned Minneapolis Convention Center.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of six maintenance employees, five of whom were fired over a period of several years. Five are black, and one is American Indian. Two are disabled. They cleaned the building and set up rooms, earning $15 to $21 an hour.
They seek reinstatement, damages of more than $1 million, an injunction against discriminatory treatment, and court oversight. The suit, which names 10 center officials and supervisors, alleges they so incessantly looked for mistakes that they created a hostile work environment.
Plaintiff Jay Tarbert worked for the city for 17 years until he was fired. He said that by the end of his tenure the constant presence of supervisors meant that co-workers didn't want to work with him.
"They didn't want that harassment to fall onto them," he said.
City Attorney Susan Segal responded: "The convention center does not tolerate discrimination. We have full confidence in the management of the convention center, and the city will vigorously defend against the suit."
Plaintiffs filed the suit in November but did not serve it on defendants until last week. The city has not formally answered the allegations. According to the city, 47 percent of center workers were minorities at the end of 2010.
Racial issues have troubled the convention center for years, according to activist Ron Edwards. He testified to a city commission, he said, about discrimination and retaliation issues there. "There was a lot of turmoil over there," said Larry Blackwell, a former city affirmative-action director.
The city owns and supports the center, which loses money, because it brings lodging, restaurant and other income to the local hospitality industry.
The lawsuit also names as defendants Executive Director Jeff Johnson and a group of lower-level supervisors. The complaint alleges that a number of supervisors were former Iowans unused to dealing with racial minorities. In one case, the suit alleges, a supervisor told black workers who were boarding an elevator to "get to the back of the bus."
Age bias alleged
Four of the six plaintiffs worked at the center at least 15 years, and five are 50 or older. Their attorney, Christopher Walsh, said that's key to the harassment they allege. "Companies often do economic discrimination where they terminate the highest-paid people," he said. "It's a type of age discrimination."
The complaint cites plaintiff Ronald Benford, 61. He worked part time for three years and full time for 19 years for the center until he was fired in 2008.
The complaint alleges:
Benford's job ratings were consistently satisfactory until after he complained in 2005 of discrimination. Benford reported that a supervisor referred to him as "boy." After reporting that, he got close attention from the supervisor and was the only employee required to get the supervisor's permission for smoke breaks.
Benford was suspended for minor infractions, yet one employee missed work repeatedly, and another showed up intoxicated, and they received only minor discipline, according to a city Civil Rights Department finding.
Probable cause found
The department found probable cause for Benford's complaint of a hostile workplace and disparate treatment on the basis of race. The parties agreed in a settlement that there would be no retaliation. Despite that, supervisors continued to retaliate against Benford and others, using racial, gender and age-based slurs, the lawsuit alleges.
Benford alleges that when he began working for the center years ago, high-seniority whites didn't get assigned dirty jobs or heavy lifting. But when he gained seniority, he was repeatedly given such tasks. Once, supervisors assigned him to clean 18 restrooms that had been neglected by younger workers for several days. When he complained, a supervisor wrote him up for insubordination.
The complaint alleges that supervisors repeatedly asked Benford when he would retire. He eventually was fired.
The lawsuit argues that favoritism drove hiring and promoting and that the defendants violated civil rights and age-discrimination laws.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438