A Brown Out

Hispanic employees at Kansas City Power & Light complained to their bosses for years about the same problems black employees encountered at the company: a lack of representation in management and on the board of directors, inadequate recruitment, and a climate of discrimination.

Carlos Salazar, a city and county affairs representative for KCPL (he lobbies for the company at the local-government level), testified in federal court on June 27. He spoke on behalf of Norman Ross, a black KCPL employee of 20 years who repeatedly was denied promotions. Salazar and two Hispanic former KCPL employees have filed their own lawsuit against the company.

Salazar, who would not speak to Pitch Weekly because of his pending litigation but whose comments are recorded in court documents, told the jury about his struggle to bring racial problems to the attention of upper management, and the failure of KCPL higher-ups to take action.

In 18 years with the company, Salazar had never known of one Hispanic in an upper-management position. For 10 years, he wrote complaints about it on the yearly proxy statement he received as a company stockholder through his 401(k) plan.

Salazar also wrote letters, and in 1998 Chief Executive Officer Drue Jennings finally invited Salazar and a small group of other Hispanic employees to meet with him and Vice President of Human Resources Bailus Tate, who is black.

Salazar had several race-related concerns he wanted to bring to Jennings’ attention.

Salazar said that around the time he started complaining about discrimination, he noticed that white males seemed to be the only ones participating in a program called “development based on cross-functional areas.” Participants would be moved around to gain experience in different areas of the company and eventually be promoted to director positions. He also noticed that most of the employees chosen for a developmental plan that involved pursuing master’s degrees in business administration were white males.

Part of his job was to evaluate managers’ performance appraisals, and Salazar discovered a pattern of discrimination in employee compensation and merit salary increases. “I would make a recommendation to my boss…. My boss would bring in outside factors that happened maybe a few years back and would hinder not only merit increases but, at times, promotions.” A disproportionate number of criticisms were directed at minorities, Salazar said. He began analyzing the data.

“(I) found that minorities and females were being compensated at a lower rate than … white males in the same jobs,” he said.

Salazar notified his boss and Elaine McCoy, the manager of compensation, on several occasions. He then told Tate that he simply could not do what was being asked of him by his supervisor — which was to lower the recommended merit increases despite positive evaluations. Tate took no action, Salazar said.

Salazar and the other Hispanics who met with Jennings requested a promotion for Sergio Martinez, who had been acting supervisor of his department for more than two years and was trying to get hired into the position permanently. “Our goal as Hispanic employees was to find a … qualified manager (to be) promoted to a position.”

Jennings seemed sympathetic, Salazar said, and told the members of the group he would investigate their concerns and meet with them again. After the meeting, Salazar testified, Tate pulled Martinez aside.

“Mr. Tate … told him if he would be willing to go to speech courses and learn to verbally project himself and get rid of his accent, he would be considered for a promotion,” Salazar said.

Salazar, who had overheard the comment, asked to meet with Tate immediately. Salazar told Tate how “disturbed” and “alarmed” he was that Tate would make such a comment.

Salazar testified that Tate became “outraged” and said, “What in the hell do you want me to do? I have the fucking blacks over here and the damned Mexicans over here … what should I do?”

Tate did not return phone calls for this story.

Salazar said he told Tate that a promotion for Martinez would satisfy the Hispanic employees.

Jennings called the group back about six weeks later. According to Salazar’s testimony, he thanked the members for keeping the matter internal and not going outside the company as Norman Ross had. Jennings also told them that he sympathized but that other minority groups and females were having the same problems — lack of promotion, recruitment, and retention. Jennings told the group he would start two new programs for minorities — a cadet program wherein vice presidents would work on developing individual minority and female employees within the company, and an expansion of the intern program specifically for minorities. Neither program was implemented, Salazar testified.

Jennings did not return phone calls for this story.

Soon after the meeting, Martinez and another Hispanic employee who had signed the letter to Jennings were fired. Salazar’s own employee evaluations worsened, and he was later denied several promotions.

The three brought a lawsuit against KCPL, seeking investigation of promotional practices and asking that Hispanics be recruited from college campuses, that Hispanic employees be considered for promotions to decision-making jobs and receive equal treatment regarding retention bonuses, and that the 50 or so Hispanic employees at KCPL receive equal opportunity based on their qualifications. Their suit is scheduled to go to court in May.

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