Grace Brown worked for Seattle’s Department of Parks and Recreation for nearly three decades, mostly as a laborer cleaning park bathrooms, she says.
“I did my job well, hoping that one day I could move up,” said Brown, 59.
She never did.
Brown was hired as a laborer and quit as a laborer, spending an initial 14 years as a seasonal employee with no benefits, she says.
“My season lasted 14 years … with no vacation, no medical,” said the Central District-raised grandmother, whose job also included grounds work at parks.
Brown trained new employees on multiple occasions and repeatedly interviewed for better positions, she says. But her career came and went without a promotion (other than when she secured permanent status) even as employees who weren’t Black moved up, she says.
“There were plenty of people who came into this profession and now they’re crew chief and supervisors,” said Brown.
Now Brown and six other Black women who have worked for the Parks Department are suing the city, alleging racial discrimination and disparate treatment based on race and gender.
“It’s a bitter pill we’ve been swallowing, and now it’s our time to speak out,” she said.
Most of the plaintiffs allege they were denied promotions, most allege they were retaliated against for various reasons and several say they were wrongly disciplined. All are over 40 years old.
Three still work for the Parks Department, while three say they felt compelled to resign, and one alleges she was wrongly terminated.
Their lawsuit, filed last August, seeks unspecified damages, arguing they made less money over the years than they would have with promotions and other opportunities. It alleges that department supervisors and directors have been “responsible for perpetuating a hostile work environment toward African American women.”
“What they can all show is that they were treated differently,” said Oscar Desper III, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Last October, the Seattle city attorney’s office filed a court response denying the core allegations, and the case is scheduled for trial in 2022. Beyond that, the Parks Department declined to comment. The department doesn’t comment on an active lawsuits, a spokesperson said.
Plaintiffs have many stories
Each woman suing the city has a story about working at Parks, some more complicated than others. Brown was passed over for promotions that would have allowed her to make more money and work indoors, she says.
Recreation specialist Angela Smith, 44, says she’s spent 17 years at Parks without any promotions or out-of-class opportunities, which allow employees to make more money and build experience on a temporary basis in another job classification. Recreation assistant coordinator Dawn Bennett, 57, says she was denied a promotion to a community-center coordinator job that she had already been doing out-of-class. The job went to a white man, she says.
Patricia Young, 58, says she left the Parks Department in the same secretarial position that she had been hired into 24 years prior. Sacha Wyatt, 45, says she was passed over for promotions and was turned away from an interview for an electrical apprenticeship because she was three minutes late. She was late because the West Seattle Bridge had a malfunction, says Wyatt, a laborer. A white man got the job, she says.
Cherryl Jackson Williams, 48, a former recreation specialist, says she was unfairly demoted, with the Parks Departmetn citing unsatisfactory credit-card reconciliation and invoice work. Kelly Guy, 54, a former recreation director, says she was wrongly terminated, with the department citing a pattern of inappropriate communication with employees and members of the public.
The women allege they were treated differently than male employees and employees who are not Black in similar situations.
Some say they were denied promotions based not on their work at the department and with community members, but instead on their “interviewing skills.”
“It’s a system of doing things,” said Bennett, a candidate for mayor of Kent. “I had to be everything and then some … I was just never good enough in the interview rooms.”
Raising complaints at work is risky for Black women, who tend to be labeled troublemakers, several plaintiffs say. At the Parks Department, complaints sometimes led to worse conditions, they allege.
“You have to be very intentional about how you represent your challenges, because you know they’re just waiting on that moment where you present anything that looks like an angry Black woman,” Jackson Williams said.
Some of the details in the lawsuit — such as allegations of racist remarks and the circumstances under which promotions and discipline occurred — are difficult to evaluate, because Parks Department officials declined to comment and because the city’s court response didn’t present alternative narratives.
For example, the city’s court response acknowledged that Brown was never promoted, other than from seasonal to permanent laborer. The response didn’t address her allegations about trainees who were later promoted.
The department declined to provide employment information about the plaintiffs, directing The Seattle Times to file a public records request instead. That request is pending.
The lawsuit in some cases, but not all, names male employees and employees who are not Black, who were allegedly treated better. The case may hinge on whether the plaintiffs can back up those sorts of examples.
The suit in context
Data provide some context for the lawsuit. Parks is one of the largest city departments and employs more Black women than most departments, according to pay records provided by the city’s human resources department.
Last year, about 8.5% of employees paid by the Parks Department with any number of hours worked were Black women, according to the records. About 6.5% paid by Parks with at least 1,000 hours worked were Black women. Employees who identify as “two or more races” are listed separately in the records.
Among Parks Department employees who worked at least 1,000 hours in 2020, Black women averaged $69,400 in gross pay, while black men averaged $69,300, white women averaged $80,000, white men averaged $79,000 and all employees averaged $75,300.
Black women received 6.6% of all Parks promotions from 2010 to mid-May 2021, according to promotion records provided by the human resources department. They worked about 8.7% of all out-of-class hours last year.
Very few Parks Department employees with “manager” or “executive” in their titles last year were Black women.
Department officials declined to comment on or confirm those data points, which weren’t included in the lawsuit, because The Times asked about them along with the lawsuit.
Desper, the lawyer, questioned whether the promotion records were complete and accurate. He noted the scarcity of Black women in the upper ranks in the Parks Department.
The plaintiffs and their lawyers, Desper and Robert Fulton, point to a 2018 study by graduate students from the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy.
The study, which reviewed documents and surveyed employees to evaluate the implementation within the Parks Department of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, generated findings that jibe with the lawsuit. The initiative was launched in 2004 to combat racial inequities by applying a special lens to all city work.
The researchers found “an overall feeling of distrust” at Parks, with many employees scared to honestly express their opinions about the initiative, and “a perception that hiring and promotion opportunities are more likely to be granted to white people.”
The study also found that white employees were more likely to have positive experiences in the department and that “some employees of color feel tokenized, especially those in managerial positions.”
The researchers wrote: “Consistently, Black women indicated they are passed over for opportunities for advancement in favor of white people,” despite leading the way on RSJI efforts.
Racial justice work
RSJI efforts within departments are led by employees, like Young and Smith, who volunteer for extra work.
Young and Smith say they were targeted by superiors who objected to and complained about RSJI efforts, especially when they raised questions about racism at work.
“This is the work the city wanted us to do … and I held them to their word,” Young said.
Many of the plaintiffs grew up in Parks programs and started working at the department when they were still teenagers.
Guy and Bennett once ran late-night programs. Brown worked at Garfield Community Center when Smith was growing up there. Smith knew she wanted to work for the department, too.
They say the way they’ve been treated feels like a betrayal.
“I came to the Parks department on welfare. I got off welfare and started my life with my daughter,” said Brown, recalling that she used to encourage her nieces and nephews to work at the Parks Department.
Now she isn’t sure what to say.
“That’s why we’re here,” Brown said. “Yes, there’s reparations that you need to pay. But the main thing you need to get is that you’re not going to do this to the next generation.”