NJ Transit agreed to settle the racial discrimination and retaliation lawsuits brought by two employees, including a woman who successfully sued the agency for racial discrimination in 2014 – for a total of $ 3.2 million.
NJ Transit board members approved the two settlements on Monday along with Pia Wilson and Jose Rivera, who said they faced discrimination and reprisals at work. NJ Transit will pay plaintiffs a total of $ 3.2 million, their lawyers said.
Wilson was one of six employees who successfully sued the state transportation agency for racial discrimination in a June 2016 case that settled for $ 3.65 million. The lawsuit that was settled on Monday was filed in January 2017 when Wilson accused she was facing retaliation for filing and winning her original trial.
This retaliation included moving a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job at NJ Transit’s headquarters in Newark to a warehouse in Kearny, where she was to report for work at 6.30 a.m. and work 12 hours a day without overtime, a she said. Three people who worked for her were either made redundant or retired and then not allowed to be replaced, she said.
Wilson left the agency in January 2018 because “the retaliation was literally making her sick,” said Nancy Erika Smith, her lawyer.
After the settlement agreement is reached, Wilson “hopes the culture changes” at NJ Transit because she “still has friends who work there,” Smith said.
NJ Transit officials said they have introduced new harassment and discrimination training for employees and reduced the backlog of complaints awaiting investigation.
“She described a world for African American employees and a world for politically connected white employees,” Smith said. “It’s incredibly disturbing and she hopes it ends this time.”
Smith testified about Wilson’s first trial at a 2016 Joint Legislative Oversight Committee hearing on NJ Transit, saying Wilson’s demand to change the system to end discrimination and harassment was unsuccessful to nothing.
“They lost two incredibly dedicated and knowledgeable longtime employees to discrimination,” Smith said.
She blamed “the bad leaders… many of them were (politically) appointed by former Governor Chris Christie, who rallied against anyone who complained,” Smith said. “Some of them are gone.”
Rivera sued in December 2016, claiming he suffered retaliation because, as Wilson’s boss, he was filed in his first trial. Retaliation from a supervisor who was also named in the Wilson case involved denying Rivera promotion opportunities, removing job and staff responsibilities and “attacking” his productivity, according to court documents. He was also paid two to three levels below what his white counterparts were paid, according to the lawsuit.
Rivera complained to Human Resources and Equal Employment Opportunities officials at NJ Transit, but no action was taken and retaliation continued after the first lawsuit against Wilson was settled, did he declare.
“This is an ongoing and hard-fought case,” said Ravi Sattiraju, Rivera’s lawyer. “We hope, for the sake of workers and the public, that things are improving and management begins to take employees and workers more seriously and that increased oversight is being provided by other branches of government. “
He criticized the state for a “scorched earth policy” that resulted in the state “spending a fortune” to fight a case that should have been resolved years ago, he said. Rivera is still employed at NJ Transit.
The state spent $ 133,243 in the Wilson case and $ 54,868 in the Rivera case to have outside lawyers represent it in 2019 and 2020 alone, according to the attorney general’s budget statistics.
“The money could have been better spent,” Sattiraju said. “This situation needs to improve.
Not to mention the two cases, NJ Transit officials said improvements have been made to investigating and closing employee complaints. Training of managers and workers on harassment and discrimination has increased.
“It’s better… to smother it (by) adding a well-formed direction.” It has to come from above, ”said Kevin Corbett, CEO and President of NJ Transit. “We take every compliance seriously and in general we are seeing the numbers go down. “
Some of those efforts include diversity and harassment training delivered in person or online to employees, he said.
“It’s about getting people through the training all the way to mid-level management and supervision to make sure they embrace it and understand the importance of it,” Corbett said. “It’s about providing employees with online and in-person training and making sure the unions are working with us. “
In August, human resources managers detailed improved training that began this fall and covers topics such as discrimination and harassment prevention, reprisal avoidance, diversity, inclusion, sensitivity, preventing workplace violence, unconscious bias and creating a positive work environment.
James D. Adams, Board Member, asked if Board members could participate in this online training.
“I encourage him, and the rest of the board, to take a greater role in overseeing human resources and the EEO and the prosecution of NJ Transit,” Smith said. “It could really make a difference. “
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Larry Higgs can be reached at [email protected].