Peoples Gas Light & Coke Company faces a proposed class action that claims the Chicago natural gas company rampantly discriminates against Black employees and subjects them to a “relentlessly” hostile work environment.
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The 43-page lawsuit—which also names as a defendant Peoples Gas owner WEC Energy Group—was filed by 11 current or former employees who detail experiences they claim are evidence of the company’s “open disdain and differential treatment” of Black people.
For instance, most plaintiffs claim to have been at some point physically assaulted and robbed on the job, including at gunpoint. The case attributes this to People Gas’s allegedly discriminatory steering and safety practices that result in Black employees being disproportionately assigned to more dangerous jobs without adequate security.
One plaintiff says a male customer physically assaulted her after she was assigned to turn on his gas alone in his basement. This instance was only one of several attacks the woman suffered throughout her time at Peoples Gas, all of which were met with dismissal from her supervisors and eventually caused the plaintiff to experience panic attacks, the suit shares. After Peoples Gas refused to provide the woman with accommodations for her anxiety, she was ultimately forced to quit to preserve her physical and mental health, the complaint explains.
Three other plaintiffs claim they were held at gunpoint at around 3:30 a.m. while responding to a gas leak and then were forced by Peoples Gas to remain at the site of the assault for another five hours.
The 11 employees also say they’ve been the targets of racial harassment from coworkers and supervisors, including being called racial slurs. According to the filing, this behavior is “commonplace” at Peoples Gas, and management does “little to discourage such comments or punish those who make them.”
The complaint alleges that this “blatant racism” is also directed toward Black customers who are treated “rudely, disdainfully, and worse” than white customers. For example, the suit says, non-Black employees openly refer to Black customers using racial slurs, leave worksites in Black communities strewn with debris and even require Black customers to dig up their own gas service lines for reconnection—a “dangerous and demeaning” endeavor.
“Peoples Gas’s racially biased culture and discriminatory policies and practices harm African American employees and customers and put their lives at risk,” the suit argues, claiming that the company has demonstrated a “brazen disrespect of and disregard for Black lives.”
The plaintiffs further claim they’ve been paid less and denied career advancement due to the defendant’s discriminatory promotion practices. One example of these unlawful policies, the complaint says, is Peoples Gas’s use of exams to make promotion selections, which Black employees are routinely forced to take with little or no preparation. Alternatively, the company disproportionately provides white workers with study materials in advance, the filing says.
“Moreover, if a non-Black employee does not pass an exam on the first try, they are often given the opportunity to retake it without consequences,” the case says. “When African American employees fail, they are docked pay or demoted.”
Per the complaint, the company also disparately denies Black employees opportunities to earn overtime and assigns these individuals the “most demeaning and least desirable jobs,” such as janitorial duties outside their job descriptions.
Moreover, the lawsuit claims that Black employees are subjected to heightened levels of scrutiny, leading to differential discipline and termination for conduct left “completely unpunished” for white employees.
As the case tells it, those brave enough to report this discrimination have faced retaliation from Peoples Gas in violation of their federal rights.
The lawsuit looks to represent any African Americans who worked at Peoples Gas’s South and Central Shops at levels below supervisor, including operator apprentices, utility workers, journeymen, crew leaders and operations specialists.
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