Tacoma Water unfairly picks white management applicants over Black ones, complaint says

TACOMA, Wash. — A complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that alleges a Tacoma Public Utilities employee was discriminated against when applying for a management position at Tacoma Water has spurred an investigation.

Anthony White, who is Black, alleged in a Oct. 27 complaint that Tacoma Water passed him over for a less-qualified, white candidate.

“I believe that Tacoma Water engages in a pattern and practice of discriminating against African Americans in hiring for management positions,” White, 39, said in the complaint.

Under EEOC policy, a person must allow the commission 180 days to investigate before filing a lawsuit.

Ryan Tack-Hooper, attorney representing White, told The News Tribune that period is supposed to end sometime in April and at that time White can decide whether to pursue a lawsuit.

When asked for comment on the complaint, Tacoma Public Utilities spokesperson Rebekah Anderson pointed to the city’s equity and human rights efforts but told The News Tribune in an email that TPU does not comment on open investigations.

Olivia Polynice, an Equal Employment Opportunity Officer with the city’s department of human resources, told White in a December 2020 email that an independent investigator on behalf of the city would be directing the investigation. Hana Kern, an employment attorney from Seattle, was hired onto the investigation in December.

In an Oct. 15 letter to Polynice shared with The News Tribune prior to his EEOC complaint, White detailed the allegations.

White, an operations manager, was hired by Tacoma Public Utilities in August 2019 as an operations manager in customer service. He currently makes around $135,000 a year. According to a copy of White’s resume provided to The News Tribune, he managed a department with 43 staff members and helped lead the operations meter reading department for over 300,000 electric and water meters.

On Aug. 24, 2020, White said, he applied for a transmission operations manager position with Tacoma Water, a division within TPU, with an annual salary listed between $105,747 and $135,616. At the time, he was making around $115,000 a year. The position called for at least five years of relevant experience, at least three years with supervisory experience and a bachelor’s degree in public or business administration or related field.

White was interviewed twice, including once with a panel of white employees, he said.

“I received only positive feedback and emails from two of the members on the panel, responding to my exceptional qualifications,” White said.

White said he has extensive experience as a manager in the water industry and that one of the interviewers “marveled” at his experience and wanted to place him in a pool for future management positions. A copy of White’s resume provided to The News Tribune shows he’s worked in utilities-related fields since 2007, including at the City of Frisco, Texas; City of Topeka, Kansas; water service company SUEZ North America in New Jersey; and Kansas City Power and Light.

White said he was not chosen for the Tacoma Water position.

“The person selected is white with less management level experience. For why he was selected, the reason given to me was that he was already the position’s interim holder,” White wrote to Polynice. “That is the basis of my complaint. I should not be placed in a pool for future management jobs when I am already a manager and most qualified for the position.”

White also stated in his letter that he talked to two other Black coworkers who said they experienced being passed over for white candidates.

“I am alleging that the City of Tacoma policy of allowing hires based on best fit (as listed on the position request form) promotes a culture of bias in promotions at Tacoma Water that is the Jim Crow 2.0 ‘white only sign’. Tacoma Water is not a diverse workgroup. The best fit subjectivity level fosters a culture of bias against black applicants for management positions at Tacoma Water,” White wrote.

White said the selection should be based on a person’s qualifications for the position, not the best fit, and that the city’s current policy allows interim appointments at the discretion of Tacoma Water superintendent Scott Dewhirst. When contacted by The News Tribune, Dewhirst directed comments to Anderson.

“I believe that Tacoma Water uses its emergency fill policy to pick from a white employee pool to fill vacant management roles and keep blacks from obtaining the positions. Tacoma Water subsequently uses the white employees’ temporary appointment experience as a basis for hiring them permanently in the position when it is advertised,” White said.

According to its website, the city of Tacoma has launched various efforts for racial equity in recent years, including leading departments to develop a Racial Equity Action Plan (REAP) meant to improve its ability to serve communities of color through policies and practices related to racial equity.

In 2018, TPU established an equity satellite office to launch initiatives related to equity, inclusion and diversity that included Equity 101 training to Tacoma Public Utilities employees. The course gives employees a better understanding of equity and equality, demographics and disparities that exist in Tacoma, a brief history of structural and institutional racism and Tacoma’s goals for eradicating racism.

According to Tacoma Water data requested by White and shared with The News Tribune in November, two out of 52 managers and supervisors are Black, three are Hispanic or Latino and 47 are white.

Tacoma Water is a department within Tacoma Public Utilities. Out of 1,348 TPU employees, roughly 79 percent are white, 6.8 percent are Black or African American, 3.3 percent are Hispanic or Latino, 2.9 percent are Asian, 1.8 percent are Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, .8 percent are American Indian and Alaska Native, and 5.4 percent identify as two or more races.

Out of 3,636 employees citywide, 76 percent are white, 6.2 percent are Black or African American, 4 percent are Hispanic or Latino, 4.5 percent are Asian, 2.4 percent are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, .9 percent are American Indian and Alaska Native and 6.1 identify as two or more races.

For a frame of reference, census demographics show Tacoma’s population as 64.8 percent white, 10.5 percent Black or African American, 12 percent Hispanic or Latino, 8.8 percent Asian, 1.6 percent American Indian and Alaska Native, 1.1 percent Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and 9.5 percent identify as two or more races.

“Tacoma knows it needs to hire more Black city employees. The numbers speak for themselves,” White said in a statement to The News Tribune. “But the City is not going to succeed until it takes a serious look at how agencies like the Water Department get around the rules in place to ensure fairer hiring. I hope that by speaking up I present an opportunity for the City to reflect and make progress.”

This story was written by The News Tribune.