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September 23, 2014 at 1:00 PM

Light-rail tunnel partnership sued by black laborers


Eight laborers have signed onto a lawsuit filed against the companies that contracted to handle Sound Transit’s Capitol Hill Tunnel project, saying they were given menial jobs and dismissed after less than a month because they are black.

Traylor-Frontier-Kemper (TFK) won the $314 million contract to build a pair of 21-foot diameter transit tubes from Husky Stadium to mid-Capitol Hill, where light-rail service is to begin in early 2016. The laborers say they were qualified for tunnel work, but given duties such as picking up wastepaper. Four of them said at a news conference Tuesday they worked anywhere from five to 30 days before being terminated. They also say a supervisor in charge of hiring had a small swastika tattoo on his hand.

Leonard Rollins said he was an apprentice, but received no training. Instead, he was ordered to shovel mud for no apparent reason, then he was assigned to work at the back of a tunnel boring machine to ensure its power cords weren’t tangled, he recalled. Rollins said the machine advanced at only 1 foot an hour, so the job looked like make-work.  “I like to stay busy. I like to do as much as possible,” said Rollins.

Months later, Sound Transit investigated.  The agency’s reports said that investigator Marcella Fleming Reed identified eight cases where race may have been a factor in somebody either being released or not hired.  A statistical analysis also found that TFK, a three-company joint venture, was prone to dismiss black workers at a much faster rate than white workers.  Previous news coverage of this issue can be found here.

At that time, the companies said in a statement the workers in question lacked specific skills: “In each case where TFK declined to hire a worker, it was due to insufficient qualifications or safety concerns,” it said.  The companies also brought in experienced tunnelers  from out-of-state, adding to the view that Seattle laborers were displaced.

Transit officials announced reforms, including a civil-rights inspector to watch hiring patterns. The companies continued to maintain there was no discrimination, but agreed to arbitration to resolve disputes with the black laborers; none of them chose to enter that process, according to a December 2012 follow-up message by Joni Earl, the Sound Transit CEO.

TFK went on to complete the two-mile tunnel in 2013, after successfully breaking through near Broadway.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court on Sept. 13 by Seattle attorney Stephen Teller.  It doesn’t specify a dollar amount, but seeks both punitive damages and direct compensation, such as lost wages. The workers say they had expected to be on the tunnel job for about two years.  Teller said it will take about six months for a judge to decide if the suit has class-action status. A jury trial would be 12 to 18 months down the road. He said that as many as 30 workers might be eligible to join the lawsuit.  All four laborers have gone onto other jobs, and one of them, Anthony Smith, said he performed water-pumping duties for the Highway 99 tunnel.

Comments | More in Traffic & Transit | Topics: class-action lawsuit, discrimination, laborers


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