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Verdicts & Settlements

Chicago Reaches $5.8m Settlement with African-American Water Department Employees

— May 7, 2024

Attorneys for the 12 plaintiffs had said that Chicago’s Department of Water Management tolerated a culture of racially-motivated abuse, harassment, and discrimination.

The City of Chicago has reached a tentative settlement with attorneys representing a dozen men who claim their employment with the Department of Water Management was marred by pervasive racial discrimination.

According to CBS News, the proposed agreement was reached on Monday, less than a month before the case was expected to move to trial. If approved, the settlement would provide an estimated $5.8 million in compensation for the 12 plaintiffs, all of whom are African-American.

In their initial complaint, attorneys for said that their clients—along with other Black workers at the city’s Department of Water Management—were regularly “humiliated, harassed, denied opportunities for advancement and additional pay, and threatened daily” by their white supervisors and colleagues.

“It was plain to anyone who looked that the racism cascaded from the very top of the organization like water travels down a hill,” attorney Victor Henderson said. “The racism lasted for decades and affected countless Black employees, which raises the question of why the City’s uppermost leaders failed to act.”

“The sad and most obvious answer,” he said, “is that they did not care.”

Downtown Chicago. Image via Ryan J. Farrick.

The lawsuit suggested that the agency’s managers “communicated and knowingly condoned a policy to all of the supervisors within the Water Department that African-Americans were to be, or could with impunity be, treated with distain, deprived of promotions, given less overtime, and harassed.”

Several of the plaintiffs said that they were regularly asked to train white colleagues, who were often promoted. But Black workers, in contrast, were typically denied opportunities for advancements, after which “the pattern would repeat.”

The Water Department’s upper-level leaderships also purportedly “established and promoted a pattern and practice of engaging in racially discriminatory remarks and actions against African-American employees,” including the use of the N-word and other racist terms.

Employees who objected to such treatment were purportedly disciplined, whereas reports of racially-motivated abuse were not taken seriously.

The lawsuit notes that, while some top supervisors were forced out of their positions, they were often allowed to resign or retire with full benefits.

CBS News reports that the city’s former Water Department commissioner, Barrett Murphy, resigned in 2017 after Chicago’s inspector general launched an investigation into “racist and sexist emails sent within the agency.”

In its final report, the inspector general’s office recommended that the city fire five employees—including four supervisors—for “repeatedly using City resources to send and/or receive racist and offensive emails.” It also recommended action against an individual employee and a former supervisor.

The emails, CBS News writes, included “racist jokes about former President Barack Obama, the Black Lives Matter movement, and Black NASCAR drivers.”

The settlement, while agreed to by attorneys for the city and the plaintiffs, must still be approved by the court and then authorized by the Chicago City Council.


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