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Were Training Opportunities Derailed on the Basis of Race?

An African-American railroad worker alleged that he was denied overtime and certain training due to race discrimination, and his employer denied the allegations. Read on to see what happened, how the court ruled, and the training takeaway for employers.

In 1997, Amtrak hired “Luke” as a signal helper and then promoted him in 2001 to lineman in the company’s electric traction department. Some of his responsibilities in that position included construction, installation, and repairs of the overhead catenary system.

The department was organized into three shifts between 2003 and early 2015. Luke initially worked the first shift—from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday—with two white coworkers who both were high rail operators (HROs). In addition to performing the same duties as a lineman, HROs operated high rail equipment. Another white coworker joined the crew as a foreman in 2008. Luke never sought a promotion to either HRO or foreman.

The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) governing Luke’s employment addresses how overtime is distributed and specifies that grievances should be filed within 60 days of an incident. Although Luke later alleged that he was discriminated against regarding overtime assignments on the basis of his race and that he was subjected to a hostile work environment due to his race, he never filed a grievance with his union on either claim. In 2012, he did complain to a division engineer about his perceived discrimination regarding the distribution of overtime, but the division engineer concluded that the company’s overtime policy had been followed.

Luke contended that his supervisor implemented an overtime plan in the fall of 2012 with the intent of giving more overtime opportunities to white employees than to African-American employees. Specifically, he argued that the overtime procedure before 2012 did not distribute overtime hours on the basis of position or role, giving him more chances to work overtime. Luke also maintained that he had to share overtime opportunities with the foreman once the foreman joined the first shift but that the HROs did not have to do so.

In arguing that he was subjected to a hostile work environment, Luke claimed that he was denied access to equipment canister keys; he did not receive sufficient training on Structural Erection Diagrams (SEDs), which left him in a subordinate role compared to less experienced, white coworkers; he was not appropriately acknowledged by his supervisors or coworkers; he was intimidated at work; and he was put in difficult situations in the hopes that he would fail and be disciplined.

Amtrak denied all of the allegations and maintained that its overtime policy never changed.

Luke filed suit against Amtrak. The district court ruled in favor of the employer, saying Luke did not show that he suffered an adverse employment action or that he was subjected to a hostile work environment. Luke appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, which covers Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island.

What the Court Said

The appeals court affirmed. To proceed on his disparate treatment claim based on race, Luke initially had to show that “(1) [he is] a member of a protected class; (2) [he is] qualified for [his] job; (3) [he] suffer[ed] an adverse employment action at the hands of [his] employer; and (4) [there is] some evidence of a causal connection between [his] membership in a protected class and the adverse employment action,” the appeals court said.

The court concluded that Luke did not suffer an adverse employment action, and, even if he did, he did not show that the alleged adverse employment action was due to his race. Although the 1st Circuit said it had not explicitly ruled on whether a loss of overtime opportunities amounts to an adverse employment action in this context, it said that, aside from Luke’s allegations to the contrary, there was no evidence that Amtrak’s 2012 overtime plan was discriminatory or that Luke’s overtime opportunities decreased. In fact, the court said that Amtrak determined and distributed overtime under the terms of the CBA and that there is no evidence that “this general overtime policy ever changed.”

To establish a hostile work environment, Luke had to show “(1) that [he] is a member of a protected class; (2) that [he] was subjected to unwelcome [racial] harassment; (3) that the harassment was based upon [race]; (4) that the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to alter the conditions of [his] employment and create an abusive work environment; (5) that [racially] objectionable conduct was both objectively and subjectively offensive, such that a reasonable person would find it hostile or abusive and the victim in fact did perceive it to be so; and (6) that some basis for employer liability has been established,” the court said.

Luke argued that his lack of sufficient training on SEDs and other hostile work environment allegations must be the product of discrimination. However, the court said that “his unsubstantiated assertions” to that effect alone are not sufficient to demonstrate that any of those alleged actions were based on his race.

Garmon v. National Railroad Passenger Corporation d/b/a Amtrak (No. 15-1803) (U.S. Court of Appeals, 1st Cir., 12/16/16)

The Takeaway

During training, make sure supervisors and managers understand your organization’s policies and procedures for assigning overtime and for providing training opportunities to employees.

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