By John N. Mitchell
PHILADELPHIA — For more than a year, local NAACP chapter President Rodney Muhammad said, hundreds of fired SEPTA employees have streamed through his office complaining that they were treated unfairly.
Muhammad said he has tried to get state and local politicians to at least hold hearings on what he calls an “epidemic of unfair firings” but his pleas have fallen on deaf ears and that “this can’t wait any longer.”
On Thursday, standing in front of the transportation company’s downtown headquarters with some of those fired employees, Muhammad said the next step for his organization is to meet with Gov. Tom Wolf within the next week.
“We have found SEPTA to be in gross violation of Pennsylvania labor laws,” Muhammad said. “We have laws here that we all have to live by… And because we can find no elected official in Harrisburg that has the guts to hold hearings on SEPTA, I am going to be appealing to our governor to use his bully pulpit so that these people’s redress can be heard.”
Muhammad said he has tried to avoid calling these cases racially motivated. But, he said, “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of the complaints coming to my office have been African Americans.”
Muhammad said an ongoing NAACP investigation has found SEPTA to be in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin or religion.
SEPTA Responded to the NAACP claims with this statement: “SEPTA is committed to promoting diversity in all levels of its workforce and in all facets of the organization. We are dedicated to ensuring fair treatment for all employees, and take seriously any claims regarding racism, employee abuse or unfair termination. SEPTA has met previously with Philadelphia NAACP President Rodney Muhammad, and we would welcome the opportunity to have further discussions with him regarding his concerns.”
SEPTA has about 9,400 employees.
The NAACP first raised the issue of work conditions at SEPTA in September and October 2018.
Current and former SEPTA employees have repeatedly described a work culture where the company failed to protect employees who report sexual harassment and racial discrimination, retaliated against employees for filing misconduct complaints and doled out unequal disciplinary actions.
Joseph Bryant, 50, has been driving a SEPTA bus for 18 years. He has served as a union representative for eight years, and he claims management does not like him because of his role with the union.
Bryant said he was attacked after a union meeting in 2014 and defended himself, but the incident resulted in him facing charges of aggravated assault. He went to jail in 2016. And after he served his time, Bryant was reinstated through arbitration in March 2018.
Bryan said he was rarely written up by a superior prior to his arrest. Since he returned to work, he said, his job is now “pure hell.”
“Immediately upon my reinstatement, the retaliation started,” Bryant said. “I never had problems before. Now, every 5 minutes, my boss is calling me in his office for some fabricated write-up.”
Asked why he would talk about the current conditions while still an employee of SEPTA, Bryant said he expects to receive an email later today “telling me that I have been fired because I showed up here today.
“But something has to be done about the blatant discrimination going on here,” said Bryant, who is Black.
In the winter of 2018, 33-year-old William Harris Jr. was in training to be a locomotive engineer, preparing, he said, to begin a career that would pay him $122,000 annually.
However, Harris said this changed after he was approached by a supervisor who asked him to perform a sexual act on him on at least two separate occasions. Harris said he reported the incident, but SEPTA officials told him he did not have enough evidence to support his allegations.
He said he was later accused of stealing money from passengers, which he denies, and was suspended and then fired in May 2018. Harris has filed suit against SEPTA in federal court.