ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS STRIKES ACCORD IN BIAS CASE
Black Deckhands On Mississippi River Dredge Will Split One Million Dollars
New York Times, Friday, July 25, 1997
By Kevin Sack.
The Army Corps of Engineers agreed yesterday to give job promotions and $1 million in compensatory damages to a group of black deckhands on a Mississippi River dredge who were found to have endured racial slurs and discriminatory personnel practices.
The settlement provides for the money to be split evenly among 12 current workers, 2 retirees and the estates of 2 workers who have died since the 16 deckhands filed their discrimination complaint with the Defense Department last year. Each will receive $62,500.
The corps will also offer promotions to each of the current workers, moving them from seasonal jobs into full-year positions on the dredge, the Hurley, based in Memphis. And it will provide training needed for the workers to advance into higher-ranking jobs, reassign two on-shore managers who were responsible for activities on the Hurley, transfer two white dredge workers who were accused of using racial slurs and pay $194,242 in legal fees to the complainants?lawyer.
Col. Gregory G. Bean, the commander and district engineer of the corpsÕs six-state Memphis district, said the settlement did not acknowledge discriminatory behavior by the corps or its employees.
"I was able to look at the big picture and see that we needed to do better than we had," Colonel Bean said. "This settlement helps us level the playing field so weÕre all at the same starting point, and then go from there. We needed to turn the page on this whole situation."
One of the complainants, John D. Boyd, a chef on the Hurley, said it was "a moving moment" when their lawyer, Joshua F. Bowers, presented them the settlement offer from the corps at a meeting on the boat last Friday.
"Some of the guys were real emotional, crying and hugging and rejoicing," Mr. Boyd said, speaking by telephone from the Hurley yesterday as the boat cruised the Mississippi near Hickman, Ky. "It was very uplifting to see that something could be done. We had doubts. We figured we wouldnÕt see it for 10 or 15 years."
The settlement is the second of its kind by the Corps of Engineers in the last five months. In February, the corps agreed to pay $800,000 in damages and revise its personnel policies to settle a racial discrimination case brought by black workers in Pittsburgh.
The settlement in Memphis followed a Defense Department report, issued in April, that found the environment on the Hurley "permeated with malicious and reckless indifference toward African-American employees."
The report, based on an inquiry by the PentagonÕs Office of Complaint Investigations, concluded that white workers on the boat regularly used racial epithets and told racist jokes in the presence of black co-workers. It also determined that white officers had deliberately "stifled the progress of African-American employees."
The report recommended that the corps devise an "appropriate remedy" to compensate the black workers. It noted that until last year, all the boatÕs full-year workers were white, while most of the seasonal workers were black. The full-year jobs are coveted because in addition to a guarantee of year-round employment, they carry higher pay and faster advancement toward eligibility for retirement benefits.
"That the agency acknowledged that it was time to give them jobs is what really gave joy to these men," said Mr. Bowers, their lawyer.
The Hurley, a five-story, 300-foot-long vessel, dredges mud from the Mississippi River bottom during a shallow-water season that typically stretches from late spring into the fall. During that season, the dredge operates from Cape Girardeau, Mo., to just north of Baton Rouge, La. She docks in Memphis in the off-season, when full-year employees spend their time maintaining her.
The Defense Department investigators took particular issue with the decision by officers last year to give a promotion to full-year status to the only black employee on the Hurley who had not joined in the discrimination complaint. A second black man, who had joined the bias case, was also promoted, but the investigators concluded that his promotion had been designed "as a shield against a possible finding of discrimination."
Those two men became the first blacks in the 64-year history of the Hurley and her predecessor boat, the Burgess, to be moved from seasonal work to full-year status, said Clark D. King, president of Local 259 of the National Federation of Federal Employees, the union representing the boatÕs workers.
In interviews last spring, one of the black workers, Randy C. Galloway, compared conditions on the boat to "modern-day slavery," and another, Chancey Wilson, said white officers "wanted you just to be a houseboy."
Speaking after the settlement was struck, Colonel Bean said the two white employees who had been identified by the complainants as those most prone to slurs were being moved off the Hurley to guard against any chance of retaliation or hostility.
"I felt there was no way I could have the work environment needed," the colonel said, "if they were there."