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Black workers say drinking fountains, bathrooms segregated at city facility

Five current and former employees at a city trash-handling plant allege the plant superintendent would not allow them to use the same bathroom and water cooler as white employees.

From left: Leslie Young, Jr., Russell Turner, Lawrence Powell, William Wilkins and Gibson Trowery, all workers at the Northwest Transfer Station.
From left: Leslie Young, Jr., Russell Turner, Lawrence Powell, William Wilkins and Gibson Trowery, all workers at the Northwest Transfer Station.Read more

By GLORIA CAMPISI 215-854-5935

IT MAY BE the ultimate indignity.

Lawrence "Lonnie" Powell, 58, a semiskilled laborer at the city's Northwest Transfer Station, in Roxborough, said that since he began working at the trash-handling plant in 2003 he has had to seek the superintendent's permission to go to the bathroom — then descend five flights of stairs to use it.

Powell, who is black, said that white employees have been permitted to use a bathroom just 25 feet from his work station.

"On several occasions I've actually defecated on myself, trying to get down to the bathroom," said Powell, who operates a machine that packs trash into tractor-trailers to be taken to landfills.

Powell is one of five current and former employees, all in their 50s, who allege, in legal documents and interviews with the Daily News, that the station's white superintendent has discriminated against them because they are black.

The superintendent, John Gill, has not responded substantively to Daily News requests for comment.

Clarena I.W. Tolson, commissioner of the city's Streets Department, which runs the station, declined to discuss the matter and referred questions to the City Solicitor's Office.

An assistant city solicitor has denied the black workers' allegations.

Separate facilities alleged

Among those allegations is that for several years Gill has kept a "supervisor's bathroom," one flight up from Gill's office, that "only the white employees were allowed to use...whether or not they were supervisors," Powell wrote in an affidavit last month.

"Quite often, while I'm up there, I could be sitting in my booth, and I see white guys going into the bathroom," Powell said in an interview. "They walk right by the door and go right in the bathroom there. That's maybe 25 feet away from where I'm at."

But when he has to go to the bathroom, he said, he has to go down to Gill's office to get permission, then descend five more flights.

Two other black workers, Gibson Trowery, 55, and Leslie Young Jr., 51, filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission in October 2007 and a lawsuit in January alleging discrimination by the city and infliction of extreme emotional distress by Gill.

Howard K. Trubman, a Center City attorney representing the black workers at the station, said that the law permits Trowery and Young to take their case to court because the PHRC did not rule within a year.

But black workers had complained in writing about what they considered racism at the station as far back as 1999, Young and Trubman said.

In August 2007, Powell aired the black employees' grievances in a meeting with Gill and Streets Department Deputy Commissioner Carlton Williams, who then ordered Gill to open the supervisor's bathroom to everyone, court documents show.

That meeting came three days after a job action on Aug. 17, 2007, in which no African-American employees at the station reported for work. The workers still refer to the protest as "Black Friday."

Powell said that he later saw a black employee, who had been promoted to a supervisory position, using the "supervisor's bathroom" several times.

But that didn't last, and that employee went back to driving a truck, Trubman said.

"Today the door of that so-called supervisor bathroom is locked," Powell wrote in his June 29 affidavit, prepared for a racial-discrimination complaint that he filed last month with the PHRC. In the affidavit, he named four white employees who had used that bathroom.

Water cooler in the closet The building in which the men work, located up the hill from the Schuylkill at Domino Lane and Umbria Street, had been the city's Northwest Incinerator — the outside wall still calls it that — until the city switched from a trash-burning system several years ago.

Young drove tractor-trailers filled with trash from the station to landfills until he was placed on medical disability because of an on-the-job injury last year.

In their PHRC complaint and their lawsuit, Young and Trowery — who has the same duties as Young, both men earning $40,882 a year as of last November, according to city records — alleged that a water cooler in the station's scale room had been moved into a dirty closet where the heater is located, and chained to a beam.

Young, who was a union shop steward at the time, said that this happened during a 95-degree heat wave in 2007. He said that Gill told him that the workers were drinking too much water.

Meanwhile, white workers were allowed to use a water cooler in Gill's office, the lawsuit says.

"If you didn't want to drink water out of the closet, you had to go to Gill's office," Trubman, the lawyer, said yesterday. "But when the black workers went to his office to drink water, he wouldn't give it to them."

Eventually the chain was cut and the water cooler was moved back outside the closet, Young said.

Young said that all except two of the white employees have since retired or left the station.

Tolson, the streets commissioner — who is black — visited the station in response to the complaints, Young said, but he did not remember when.

Gill, 53, is a 35-year city employee who was earning $53,585 a year as of last November, according to city records. He succeeded his father, also named John Gill, as the station's superintendent, documents show.

During a brief telephone interview this month, when a Daily News reporter asked Gill about the employees' allegations, he initially said: "No comment."

Then, when asked specifically whether black employees were forced to use a separate bathroom five floors below a bathroom used by white employees, Gill responded: "Do you really think that's true?"

Assistant City Solicitor Geoffrey D. Bruen issued a terse denial of the workers' allegations. "The city and Mr. Gill deny the accusations," Bruen told the Daily News. "They're absolutely untrue."

Bruen said that he could not comment further on a pending lawsuit, but added: "We believe our case will be vindicated, once we go through the litigation."

The PHRC, which receives a steady stream of discrimination complaints, never concluded its investigation of the Young-Trowery case and closed the books on the case once it moved to the courts.

Shannon Powers, a PHRC spokeswoman, said that the PHRC deals with several thousand allegations of discrimination a year — 3,382 allegations of employment discrimination alone were initiated in the fiscal year that just ended. "We started the year with 4,393 cases pending from previous years," she said.

If the PHRC hasn't resolved a complaint within a year, the complainant may take the case to the courts, Powers said.

A case 'out of the 1950s' In an interview, Trubman, the workers' attorney, characterized the so-called supervisor's bathroom as a "segregated bathroom" and said the case reminded him of something "out of the 1950s."

Trubman contended that Gill's alleged discriminatory conduct toward African-American employees "has lasted well over a decade."

An employee cannot be sued for discrimination because he or she is not the actual employer, Trubman said, so the lawsuit against Gill alleges "intentional infliction of emotional distress."

On May 1, Common Pleas Judge Jacqueline F. Allen dropped the allegation against Gill from the lawsuit without comment. As a result, Trubman said, the suit will be heard by a judge without a jury, under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

In an interview, Allen said that she would "not comment specifically on an open case."

'Not Mississippi' "It's just very degrading when you had to come to work every day knowing some racism was going to be put on you," said Young, who worked at the station about 15 years when he retired after losing the use of his left hand in a tractor-trailer accident in January 2008.

"Especially in this day and age. This is Philadelphia, but this is not Philadelphia, Mississippi. It's 2009. The whole world is multicultural now."

In the racial-discrimination complaint filed last month with the PHRC, Powell is joined by William Wilkins, 57, who has worked at the station for eight years, and Russell Turner, 53, a four-year employee.

"There's just different rules for the black guys here and the white guys here, and that's unacceptable, really," Wilkins told the Daily News in an interview outside the station this month.

Turner agreed. "We're told to drink water when it's hot," said Turner, also interviewed outside the station. "If it's so many degrees, they say, 'Drink a lot of water.' We didn't know where the cooler was. We had to find the cooler to get water. It was chained and locked in that closet.

"It makes me feel terrible. I don't like the fact that I have to say, 'Can I have water?' And he [Gill] don't buy that water — that water is for everybody here."

According to city records, as of last November, Wilkins, a tractor-trailer driver, was paid $40,482 a year; Powell was paid $33,867; and Turner, a semiskilled laborer, was paid $31,861.

Northwest 'Plantation' The lawsuit filed by Trowery and Young alleges that Gill referred to the station as the Northwest "Plantation."

Young said that when, as shop steward, he took the men's complaints to Gill, he was told that "if me and my friends don't like it here in the Northwest 'Plantation,' we can pack our s--- and leave."

Trubman said that Gill told the PHRC in the Young-Trowery case that the "plantation" remark was meant as a joke.

Recently, after the black workers found in the trash a book titled Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, by historians John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, they began to read it for solace and inspiration, Young said.

"When this book turned up on our platform in the trash, just made us think that this is like slavery again," Young said. "So we started keeping the our little Bible in the drivers' shack, where all the black drivers sit and we relax and eat lunch.

"And we just try to encourage each other to every now and then, when he does something racist to you or that really pisses you off, to read a couple pages of the book, to show you that this is not the first time this happened, we can get through this, but we got to do it together."

The lawsuit is scheduled to be heard in February 2010.

Staff members Sarah Glover, David Gambacorta, Chris Brennan, Catherine Lucey, Dave Davies and St. John Barned-Smith contributed to this report.