‘Rolled Off Their Tongues’: Black Chicago Utility Workers Allegedly Called Racial Slurs, Sent to Sites Where They Were Robbed at Gunpoint

Eleven Black utility workers filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against Peoples Gas in Chicago, Illinois, on Nov. 28. The lawsuit claims that the company “discriminates against its African American employees and customers.”

The plaintiffs, including Jason Towns, Garland Eleby, Letitia Jackson, Karen Lanford, Tamia Nunn, Reginald Scoggins, Christopher Trass, Darryl Woods, Ericka Garmon, Shawnda Simmons, and Laticia Daniel, all say they were subjected to working in “a hostile environment” that included being called the N-word, “blackie,” “lips,” and “boy.” One supervisor allegedly once said they needed to “crack the slave whip.”

Peoples Gas lawsuit
Peoples Gas faces a discrimination lawsuit from Black employees in a Chicago location. (Photo: WGN News screenshot / YouTube)

The workers also claim that “their safety and lives are not valued” at the company and they were forced to follow different rules than non-Black employees.

The lawsuit states that being Black and an employee of Peoples Gas “can be a life-or-death job” because most of the plaintiffs were “physically assaulted and robbed on the job, including at gunpoint.” It also accused the company’s non-Black employees of “open disdain and differential treatment” of Black customers and of expressing “shock” when seeing them with “nice homes and two-parent families.”

“Peoples Gas’s racially biased culture and discriminatory policies and practices harm African American employees and customers and put their lives at risk,” reads the lawsuit. “Peoples Gas’s brazen disrespect of and disregard for Black lives ranges from steering its African American employees to dangerous working conditions without adequate security to forcing its African American customers to dig up their own gas service lines for reconnection, a dangerous and demeaning endeavor.”

Garland Eleby recalled his first day of work and said he heard a white co-worker use a racial slur.

“Nobody flinched,” said Eleby. “Nobody looked up or asked, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with you?’ Nothing. It rolled off the tongue like he said it every day.”

The plaintiffs also said that Black employees were forced to work in neighborhoods with high crime rates, and Eleby was once robbed at gunpoint while working and forced to stay at the location for several hours afterward.

“I was really upset,” he said. “I was disgusted. It was like we got sent into a battle with no proper gear or anything. It was just like no regard for how we felt.” Eleby was also once told by a white employee, “I like you. You’re one of the good ones.”

Twenty-one of the 22 Peoples Gas employees assigned to the South Shop who have been assaulted at gunpoint or attacked in the last several years are Black. Plaintiff Letitia Jackson said she was upset after witnessing a shooting while working and was told by a supervisor that if she went home, she’d have to use one of her PTO days.

“When I got back to the shop, my supervisor only offered me a hot dog,” she said. “I am crying, bawling in tears, wanting to go home, and I was told, ‘Well, you’ll have to use your own [paid time off] to go home.’”

A white Peoples Gas employee also showed Black employees a bullet while Barack Obama was president and claimed the bullet was for their president, but the employee was not terminated by the company. White employees also often targeted Black women by calling them “nasty b—hes” and insinuating that they exchanged sexual favors for continued gas service. Non-Black employees also said things like, “Black people don’t want to work” when discussing overtime.

“Consistent with its racially biased corporate culture, Peoples Gas maintains discriminatory employment practices that result in, among other things, Black employees being paid less, disciplined more, and denied advancement because of their race,” says the suit. “Perhaps worse, Peoples Gas segregates and assigns Black employees to more dangerous locations and jobs, and denies them potentially life-saving security, pursuant to company practices and deeply racist views about African Americans.”

Another employee, Jason Towns, was fired in 2022 after the crew he was working with damaged an underground service line. Towns said that a white crew member was not disciplined when he was let go. The 17-year employee was also once asked by a supervisor, “let me see your big penis.” Towns has since returned to the company after his wrongful termination.

“I just want to come to work and do my job,” said Towns. “Do the best job that I could possibly do and just go home. I hate to have to be the person here to bring light to this particular situation, but it’s inevitable.”

Peoples Gas denied the accusations and said they would fight the lawsuit “vigorously” in a statement to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“We adamantly deny the allegations made by these individuals, including the extreme and false claims of racial bias, and will vigorously defend the suit,” said the company. “We provide a workplace with equal opportunities for all employees, including a long-standing unionized field workforce.”

The lawsuit claims the company violated the Illinois Human Rights Act, and the plaintiffs are asking the court to declare the company “engaged in a pattern and practice of racial discrimination against African Americans.” The plaintiffs are also requesting compensatory and punitive damages as well as attorneys’ fees and court costs.

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