Bus drivers, mechanics and other workers called on King County Metro Thursday to do more to address racism in the workplace after a small statue of a Black person was found near a flagpole on Metro property.

The incident, which happened in early June and is under investigation by Metro, motivated some employees to speak about racism they see in their daily work at the county transit agency.

A photo showing the statue near the flagpole as well as cords that appear to be hanging from the flagpole circulated among some employees and on social media this month. Metro said that while it does not know the intention of the person who placed the statue there, it “could be interpreted as a racist symbol and form of harassment, neither of which Metro will tolerate under any terms.”

A union official said the placement was unintentional and the worker who put it there has apologized. 

“The intention is very clear to me and very clear to a lot of Black people who work in Metro,” said Dennis Robinson, who works as a transit purchasing specialist

Several dozen people gathered Thursday for a demonstration at the Metro base in Tukwila where the statue was found, calling on Metro to address bias in the workplace. Among their demands, organizers said Metro should provide restitution to workers who have previously filed complaints about bias or harassment.

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“This is years in the making,” custodian Juan Hood III said. “This is a powder keg.”

The calls come as protests across the country have denounced police brutality and entrenched racism, including in workplaces.

Speaking to employees after the protest, Metro Deputy General Manager Terry White said, “There’s real pain going on, and it’s not just from this one incident.” 

“We can do better,” White said. “We have to do better. We are going to do better.” In an interview, White said Metro was taking steps to address racism but declined to discuss specifics, saying he wanted to “honor this moment” and not enter a back-and-forth with the workers demonstrating.

Mechanic Adam Arriaga said co-workers have mocked him for playing salsa music, described employees of color as lazy and used racist slurs in the workplace. Sometimes, white employees have dismissed the use of slurs as someone having a bad day, Arriaga said.

“We’re just tired of what’s going on,” he said.  

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Operator Hassan Osman said he has heard fellow workers speak derogatorily about immigrants from Mexico. “I wish you were not racist, but all I am asking is do not bring your racist attitude to work,” Osman said.

During the demonstration, Arriga turned to some members of management who attended the protest. “If somebody reports it, take it seriously,” he said. “Don’t try to tell me that I did not perceive the situation correctly.”

Some employees said the placement of the statue made them worry about their safety.

“I need to feel comfortable when I go to work,” operator Cheryl Jones said. “You don’t have to like me. Just don’t do stuff like this.”

Metro’s investigation into the placement of the statue is ongoing and some details are unclear. According to the union representing employees, a worker cleaning out bus shelters found the figurine and asked around to see if anyone wanted it before leaving it near the flagpole.

The worker has since apologized to co-workers at a different base, said Cory Rigtrup, vice president of maintenance at ATU Local 587, which is representing the worker. 

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Metro said in a statement “the statue was never hanging or otherwise attached to the flagpole. The cord in the image is in the background and connected only to the cleat of the flagpole where the flag is raised.” 

Rigtrup said Metro should offer better sensitivity training for employees and address alleged disparities in discipline and promotions. Metro said in a statement it is “committed to ensuring that our work environment is free from discrimination.”

Adé Franklin, transit-facilities division director at Metro, said that after talking to employees in recent days he has come to understand long-held frustrations among workers and wants to create cultural changes, but “what exactly that looks like today, I don’t know.”

Some workers were skeptical of Metro’s commitments. “All that talk never makes it to the floor,” Arriaga said. “Whatever they’ve been working on, it’s just not working.”