News Feature | March 19, 2019

Tacoma Utility Worker Gets Six-Figure Settlement In 'Bro Culture' Case

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

A city in Washington State has agreed to settle a lawsuit with a former employee who accused its public utility of encouraging a workplace hostile to women.

“Tacoma’s City Council on Tuesday approved a settlement with longtime Tacoma Public Utilities’ media representative and communications director, who accused the utility of fostering a culture hostile to the interests of female employees,” The News Tribune reported. “In November, Chris Gleason, employed with TPU since 2006 and before that with the city, filed a $3 million claim for damages, citing discriminatory practices and denial of equal pay at TPU, among other issues.”

The city agreed to pay a total of $200,000 to settle all employment-related claims against it. Gleason released a statement recognizing that the city amicably resolved her claims by taking corrective action and agreeing to investigate thoroughly. She will be taking a paid leave until late May and will fully participate in the investigation, per the report.

In an interview with The News Tribune last year, Gleason elaborated on her claims against the utility.

“Culturally, it’s not an environment that supports or develops women,” she said. “It’s not just pay. It’s also access to opportunities in the organization. It’s based on this male-dominated, kind of ‘bro’ culture that exists. It’s a hard thing to talk about because there’s fear of losing your job, or being retaliated against.”

She also said that, at one point, her position at the utility was demoted and when she asked for an explanation, she was told that she was too bold. She added that when she pointed out that a male co-worker’s behavior verged on bullying, she was told that was just a natural part of his bold personality.

Gleason also shared a note with the newspaper which she said she received at the time of her demotion. It said “no end-arounds,” apparently instructing her not to speak with other utility leaders about the changes. Though a woman named Jackie Flowers had recently been appointed as TPU’s first-ever female director, Gleason said she was told not to speak with her about her demotion.

Following the settlement, it appears TPU is refocusing on creating a more equitable workplace.

“At TPU we are committed to workplace diversity and equity,” Flowers told the Tribune in a statement. “We will complete an investigation of the claims brought forth and follow up with any resulting appropriate corrective actions.”

To read more about employee issues at water and wastewater utilities, visit Water Online’s Labor Solutions Center.