Six workers performing construction at a North Dakota gas plant are pushing forward a federal lawsuit alleging racial discrimination.
The six African-American workers filed the suit late Wednesday against their former employer, California-based KS Industries, LP, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California.
KS Industries is an engineering, fabrication and construction company based in California.
Ranging from 2012 to 2014, the six workers allege they experienced racially offensive graffiti and harassment, disparate employment practices and work assignments. The workers are seeking back wages, front pay, benefits, damages, interest, attorney’s fees and requirements that the company implement anti-discrimination training.
KS Industries directed the Tribune to their lawyer for comment. Three phone messages left by the Tribune with the lawyer's assistant went unreturned Thursday.
The lawsuit comes after remedial negotiations, overseen by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, fell apart, said the plaintiffs’ lawyer James Vagnini, of Garden City, N.Y.,-based Valli Kane Vagnini LLP.
“We’re disappointed having to file this suit,” he said. “We were hoping the company had taken this more seriously.”
Complaints were first filed by the six workers with the EEOC in 2014. In May 2017, the EEOC issued a determination finding that the black employees were subjected to severe and pervasive harassment and were retaliated against.
According to court documents, the workers say at the worksite near Tioga there was graffiti that included racial slurs and depictions of black persons hanging by a noose. The workers also allege they were called racial slurs by their white supervisors and coworkers. When complaints were made, no remedial action was taken.
The lawsuit also alleges the workers, all of whom relocated to North Dakota for their jobs, were denied raises and promotions, were forced to perform dangerous work in freezing temperatures and were not permitted to take mandatory breaks in the “warming trucks.”
• Aaron Baptiste, who worked for the company for about a month from January to February 2014, alleges his crew would leave early in a transport vehicle, on multiple occasions leaving him behind, and his supervisor often refused to provide him with a work partner as white employees were provided. While working 14-plus hours per day for more than 20 consecutive days, Aaron Baptiste said he was given permission to take a day off. Upon his return, he was terminated for a “no call/no show” and because his boot laces were not tied properly. He alleges non-black employees received multiple “no call/no shows” and were not terminated.
• Joseph Baptiste transferred to Tioga in 2014 with the promise that he would be paid $31 per hour but was only paid $28 per hour, according to court documents. A white employee with 25 years less experience was paid $2 more per hour than Joseph Baptiste. While driving other workers in a company vehicle at the request of a supervisor, Joseph Baptiste harmlessly slid on black ice, but he was fired two days later for a safety violation. In a separate incident, a white employee allegedly admitted to driving 80 mph in a company vehicle that slipped off the road but only received a five-day suspension.
• David Dillworth was employed as a crew-pusher from November 2013 to January 2014. He was qualified as a master rigger but was allegedly denied the opportunity for promotion by a supervisor who said: “You can’t rig anything; you can’t even read.” David Dillworth also says he was paid less than non-black employees who had less experience or tenure. He also alleges he was forced to work on the top of tanks while his co-workers remained working on the ground and was required to climb an ice-covered ladder during an ice storm. During an extremely cold shift, David Dillworth became ill and went home, resulting in his discharge.
• Kenneth Dillworth was hired as a general foreman, though later demoted to a crew pusher, from October 2013 to January 2014. He alleges his superintendent only provided the proper pipe handling equipment to non-black employees, leaving him to drive two hours to get tools. The superintendent also allegedly refused to answer Kenneth Dillworth’s telephone calls. In one incident, after allegedly having his call ignored, a white co-worker called the superintendent, who immediately answered and talked for 20 minutes. After taking an approved vacation, he was fired for installation errors that were made while he was gone.
• Marvin Harris, who worked for KS Industries from July 2012 to January 2014, was approved for a safety lead position by the corporate office but denied the position by his supervisor after transferring to North Dakota. Two white employees filled the position and Harris worked as a safety specialist, earning $6 less per hour. Upon asking for a promotion, Harris was told there were new qualifications which he did not meet despite the fact that other white employees did not have to meet the new criteria. He again applied for a promotion to a vacant safety lead position but was denied. A white employee was promoted to the job.
• Herman St. Brice, who worked as a general foreman from April 2010 to February 2014, was routinely performing the duties of superintendent while being paid at a general foreman rate. He was denied a formal promotion to a superintendent position and it was allegedly given to a less qualified white employee. In another incident, the superintendent allegedly gave a working foreman permission to excavate a location with live power lines beneath it. The line was struck after St. Brice had ordered the work to stop, and he was blamed for the incident. The worker who actually caused the line strike was not disciplined.