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MWD has no systemic issues in handling worker complaints, report says

Powerful Southern California water agency accused by some employees of sexual harassment and other workplace violations “generally provides a safe and respectful work environment” for people of color, women and men LGBTQ + workers, a report on the agency concludes.

The review of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California found no systemic issues in the way the agency handles complaints of harassment, racism, retaliation and other allegations of discrimination. But he found that the agency had not properly responded to such complaints in the past and said some current fairness policies are applied inconsistently.

The 67-page review was conducted by the Shaw Law Group, the Sacramento-based firm hired after several employees recounted personal experiences of alleged harassment at public meetings. The board of directors approved an independent review in November.

A subsequent Times investigation revealed a series of complaints among women in trades positions and enrolled in the apprenticeship trades program, which recruited mostly men. Of the 18 women who held trades positions between 2003 and 2019, six have filed formal complaints about equal employment opportunities, according to district records.

Newly hired District Director General Adel Hagekhalil called the report “the start of the healing process.” He said he looks forward to discussing his findings and recommendations with board members, union leaders and employees at the next board meeting.

“I think it’s a good start,” Hagekhalil said.

The review highlighted several disturbing complaints, including one worker who spoke openly about wanting to “shoot black people in the head if they are Democrats” as well as “illegals” at the Mexican border. A black employee told law firm investigators that an older white man said in a conversation that he had never known “Negroes” before.

The report says an official told investigators he wanted “things to go back to their way” when officials could ask candidates questions such as “are you married?” And “Are you a Christian?” because he “wanted guys who would fit in”.

A Caucasian employee complained to investigators that although other workers had formed cultural associations, it would be considered wrong to form a district association exclusively for whites, according to the report.

The report revealed some shortcomings in the way the MWD handled the investigation of equal employment opportunity complaints, including its reliance on outside investigators to interpret district policies, a practice that the Shaw Law Group says should end.

In the case of the employee who allegedly told a black worker he wanted to shoot black Democrats, an outside investigator corroborated “many allegations” but found they did not violate district policy.

Adan Ortega, one of the board members who first requested the review, said he was disappointed the report was not more conclusive on accountability.

He noted that the report did not indicate whether the board should have been better informed about the case of Don Nash, a director who oversaw the district’s sprawling water system. A story from The Times earlier this year revealed that Nash ran the camps like an abusive tyrant, until he was fired and died by suicide on district property.

Commission members said they were never told about the suicide or the circumstances leading up to it.

“I have read the report several times, and it leaves me in a bind,” Ortega said, adding that he believed a pending state audit approved by the state legislature last month would be necessary. to “dispel some of the doubts”.

Ellen Mackey, chair of the district employees’ union women’s caucus, said many questions remained unanswered, and her first impression was that the report was “of a disappointing size.”

Jennifer Shaw, president of the Shaw Law Group, said the firm “has done a comprehensive review” and some people would inevitably be disappointed. She said the company is ready to provide additional information or further investigate certain issues if requested. The board is due to receive the report at a public meeting on Tuesday.

“We were independent, we were neutral and we did our best to meet the reach that the board gave us,” Shaw said.

Board chair Gloria Gray said she was satisfied that the report met its objectives and that the board considered its recommendations. Although the report showed the agency was not exceptionally bad compared to other organizations, she said, MWD executives should “expect excellence.”

The Shaw Law Group also conducted a series of surveys and interviews and found that, among women surveyed, 63% said MWD was not a safe and respectful work environment for female employees.

However, the employee survey found that 72% of those who participated overall said the district provided “a safe and respectful work environment for women, ethnic minorities and LGBTQ + employees.”

The law firm also made several recommendations, including that the Equal Employment Opportunity Office report directly to the board to help restore workers’ confidence that their complaints would be dealt with. appropriately.

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