Lawsuit: Black SEPTA employee alleges racial bias kept him from promotion

SEPTA headquarters (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

SEPTA headquarters (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

A former SEPTA employee is accusing the transit authority of racial discrimination in the workplace.

The federal lawsuit claims “race was a motivating or determinative factor” in SEPTA’s discriminatory treatment of Nathanial Myers, a former assistant director of bus maintenance.

Myers, a Black man, alleges he was passed over for promotion five times. Each time, less qualified white candidates got the job, his suit alleges.

The suit filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania alleges that Myers was “held to different, and higher standards than other assistant directors.”

SEPTA hired Myers as a mechanic in 2007. He quickly worked his way up through the ranks to assistant director of bus maintenance in November 2009. He held the assistant director position until he resigned on March 12, just prior to filing his lawsuit.

Myers alleges that racial bias kept him from climbing the career ladder despite his record as an “excellent employee who performed his job duties in a highly competent manner and consistently met job expectations and received positive performance reviews.”

Myers even went back to college and received an undergraduate degree in Business Administration in 2015. He then received a Master of Business Administration and Strategic Management in 2016. The suit notes he graduated with a 4.0 grade point average.

Despite this, Myers kept getting passed over for a promotion to director of bus maintenance. Some of the white candidates he lost out to hadn’t graduated college while others hadn’t earned advanced degrees.

One successful candidate won the promotion just after completing a two-year disciplinary while Myers’ record has remained clean.

SEPTA declined to comment on the ongoing litigation. Authority officials report that Black employees make up 61% of SEPTA’s workforce and about 47% of management positions.

The transit agency did not provide a breakdown of racial demographics between specific positions such as director and assistant director. As recently as March 12, 2021, only one of the nine directors of bus maintenance were Black, per the suit. The rest are white. The position falls under SEPTA’s operations department, which is the authority’s largest containing 751 management positions in total and 5,669 maintenance and transportation positions, according to a SEPTA report.

Myers isn’t the only employee to recently take allegations of racial discrimination at SEPTA to the courts. In Feb. 2020, a Black former bus driver, Keithrollin Thompson, filed a federal lawsuit claiming racial bias played a part in his 2018 termination. Dismissed Thursday by Chief U.S. District Judge Juan R. Sánchez, the suit alleged Thompson was treated more harshly than his white peers after he hit a pedestrian while on the job.

The pedestrian refused medical help and went about their business, but the incident was caught on video and Thompson was later fired. White drivers in similar situations received less harsh consequences compared to non-white drivers, according to Thompson’s suit.

Equitable employment is a top priority

SEPTA general manager Leslie Richards said in a recent interview that equitable employment opportunities has been one of her top priorities, but after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis she focused on these efforts even more. The authority is now in the process of surveying its employees about opportunities to grow at SEPTA.

“That’s very important to us, where we all feel that we belong here,” Richards said. “Where everyone at SEPTA sees the opportunities to advance as they would like in their career and feels that they have an equal shot at every single position.”

But Michael Bente, a cashier on the Broad Street Line, said he paid little mind to the survey, viewing it as another empty gesture from authority officials. The nine-year SEPTA veteran had a similar experience to Myers he said in an interview, though he applied for a job in a different department.

Bente applied for a job in the marketing department after he graduated from West Chester University with a marketing degree. He was interviewed five times, but kept coming up short against applicants from outside the company, some of whom were straight out of college, he said.

Bente said he filed a complaint with the EEO director. It was rejected.

“It’s definitely something going on within SEPTA that prohibits the true growth for members to get promoted in these positions,” he said.

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