A pair of employees inside the Phoenix Water Services Department is alleging years of extreme racial discrimination and claim that the city uniformly ignored their complaints, according to interviews and records obtained by the ABC15 Investigators.
Laura Cerda and Anjelica Bruner each filed charges of discrimination against the City of Phoenix with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) last month.
The charges allege that the two women have been subjected to years of discriminatory harassment by a co-employee, who has called Cerda and Bruner “n***** lovers”, and told them that “Mexicans should marry Mexicans, white people should marry white people, and black people should be married to black people,” records show.
(Note: ABC15 has redacted the racial slur and is not naming the alleged employee. The employee did not respond to ABC15’s request for comment.)
Cerda and Bruner, who are both secretaries, said they are both married to African American men.
Their EEOC charges also allege that the two have repeatedly complained to top city management, including the Equal Opportunity Department. But the women claim their complaints were “uniformly ignored,” records show.
“It’s been hell,” said Cerda. “Disappointment and hell,” Bruner added.
The women have hired an attorney and plan to file a lawsuit against the City of Phoenix.
They said they just filed new complaints with the EEOC -- the federal agency that investigates discrimination -- because two complaints Bruner filed with the Phoenix Equal Opportunity Department (EOD) were dismissed.
“(The city) just didn’t help us in any which way,” Bruner said.
In Phoenix, employees can file discrimination complaints with three different agencies: The EEOC, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, and the Phoenix EOD.
In a sit-down interview with ABC15, the city’s EOD director, Don Logan, agreed that the women’s allegations are serious, but disputed that Bruner’s complaints were ignored.
“First thing, we take these matters seriously, and we investigate every complaint that is brought to our attention,” he said.
But Logan, who’s been EOD director since 2015, said administrative rules “time-barred” this investigation.
“We are bound by an administrative regulation that stipulates a complaint is to be filed within 180 days of the alleged misconduct,” said Logan, who added that the complaint can be made to a supervisor, human resources official, or EOD.
“In this case, we got nothing from the employee that indicated this incident occurred within the 180-day period,” he said.
But the women said that’s not true. They claim that the discrimination and harassment was ongoing and that they repeatedly reported it.
Montoya provided ABC15 with a copy of notes from a Water Services supervisor that document concerns and complaints about the alleged employee dating back five years.
The notes also show that there was a grievance meeting held in 2013 regarding similar allegations made by Bruner and Cerda.
Logan stands by his investigators' initial decision to dismiss Bruner’s complaint. But he said the EOD has re-opened its investigation because there were new allegations raised in the women’s EEOC complaints.
“These are new allegations, so this transcends from a closed case to an open and active case,” Logan said.
In February 2016, a white male employee inside the Water Services Department walked out to his work truck and found “n***** lover” written into the dust on the passenger side window, according to another EOD investigation obtained by ABC15.
The male employee, Erik Gray, is married to an African American woman. He also claimed that he too has suffered years of ongoing discrimination.
In that case, city investigators were unable to determine who wrote the racist term on the window. But officials did find that the action constituted discrimination.
Bruner and Cerda said it was difficult to learn that another employee had suffered a similar type of discrimination.
“When I got a copy of it and read it, I went into my office, shut the door and I cried for about an hour and a half,” Bruner said.
When asked about the similar complaint, Logan said it’s concerning.
“In short, the answer is yes,” he said. “I’m absolutely concerned.”
A spokesperson for the Water Services Department disputed that the agency is not doing enough to curb discriminatory behavior. In a later statement, another city spokesman told ABC15 the department is receiving additional training.
EOD UNDER REVIEW
The City of Phoenix Equal Opportunity Department has faced some growing scrutiny in recent months.
In August, ABC15 discovered that the EOD was investigating allegations made by a police employee that a critical interview in a discrimination case was fabricated to minimize liability for the city.
The city has also disclosed that the EOD is undergoing an independent review by an outside law firm to analyze its investigative processes and policies.
“I welcome the outside review,” Logan said. “I need to know that the way we do our job…is commensurate with the industry standards.”
Logan added that Phoenix may re-evaluate the 180-day time limit. And in Bruner and Cerda’s case, he is adamant that it will be handled appropriately.
“We are exercising due diligence in terms of making sure we investigate all aspects of the complaint that has been alleged and make sure that the ultimate outcome is fair and objective,” he said.
Bruner and Cerda aren’t convinced.
“We made a promise to each other that we would fight,” Bruner said.
"We have to be the voice of the people that were never heard,” Cerda said. “We have to. We have to make this stop.”
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at firstname.lastname@example.org.