Ninety-seven percent of the bus and train operators at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority are black, with only six white women out of more than 3,000 drivers, according to Metro documents—a lack of diversity at one of the region’s largest employers that has led to an acknowledgment of failure in affirmative-action documents and spawned a series of lawsuits.
The homogeneity, interviews with dozens of current and former Metro workers indicated, is a proxy to a clubby culture of favoritism in which merit has little to do with promotions, and accountability, such as noting safety violations, is a career death knell. In typical examples, court and Metro records show, a black man who spent eight years in prison for dealing PCP was promoted to a high-level management position soon after his release, and whites in the same positions as blacks with far less seniority are inexplicably paid less.
With Metro’s budget chronically strained and reports of mismanagement coming more regularly than trains, interviews and internal records depict a likely root: an environment in which hardworking employees are actively excluded and those who rise are those willing to do the bare minimum—never causing a stir by flagging rampant safety violations, reporting malfeasance or proposing improvements.
“When the accident happened in 2009, I called a supervisor and said, ‘Is this the one we all dreaded?’ The way workers do their jobs, we all knew it was a matter of time. … The inept get promoted, and the capable get buried. Smart people were put in the corner, ostracized and given nothing to do,” said Christine Townsend, who sued Metro for discrimination and won.
It is a culture in which a white male engineer near completion of a Ph.D. was passed over for a management position in favor of a black man who was barely literate, multiple staffers said.
“The average rider wouldn’t believe the things that go on. There are so many easy things we could do to make the system better,” a station manager said. “But they’d never put me in charge because they know I’d make sure others actually did their jobs. They don’t want change. It’s go along to get along.”
Metro is a quasi-public agency that receives funding from the federal government, Maryland, Virginia and local jurisdictions to operate a regional bus and rail transportation system in the national capital area, but is not beholden to rules that apply to fully governmental entities. With a $2.5 billion operating and capital budget for fiscal 2012, Metrorail serves 86 stations and has 106 miles of track, while Metrobus serves the nation’s capital with 1,500 buses.
Metro’s affirmative-action plan notes that the 1.4 percent of its bus and train operators who are Hispanic and the 25 percent who are female of any race are “less than reasonably expected.” It does not make note of the 1.5 percent who are white.
Even in entry-level occupations typically dominated by Hispanics, there are virtually none at Metro. Only one laborer out of 67 is Hispanic; of 540 landscapers, carpenters and cleaners, only 22 are Hispanic. In the national capital region, Hispanics make up 13 percent of adults and blacks comprise 25 percent; white women constitute 29 percent.
“The odds of such a disparity occurring by chance are statistically infinitesimal,” Ronald A. Schmidt, a lawyer representing 12 white women exploring a class-action lawsuit, wrote in a 2003 letter. “There appears to be an entrenched network of African-American employees at WMATA that is able to steer jobs, promotion, training and other career enhancing benefit to persons of their own racial or ethnic group.”
The average Metro worker had a $60,000 salary, which rises to $69,000 including overtime. That is more than 71 percent of area residents who had an income in 2010, including 62 percent of whites, census records show.
White and Hispanic employees who allege discrimination have found a deaf ear at Metro’s civil rights office, whose 17 employees are black. Until at least 1999, that office tracked complaints via a handwritten ledger on a series of taped-together sheets of paper, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times. The system “made determining statistics impossible,” said a civil rights employee from the time.
In recent months, such antiquated record keeping has allowed employees to steal thousands of dollars that electronic systems easily could have detected—and in more than one case, a culture of complicity has kept prosecutors from trying those who were caught because they feared no clean witness or proper records could be found.