Arlancia Williams says it started with the hugs.
In a lawsuit filed this month, the 15-year Metro employee says she had been promoted to a new position in December 2013, when her new boss started demanding hugs and making disparaging comments about her husband, who also is a Metro employee.
Williams alleges she told her boss she was uncomfortable, but over the course of seven months, she says, his behavior escalated to include harassing phone calls, and when she complained to Metro, she was reassigned to the least-desirable shift.
She alleges that when she took her concerns to a high-level Metro manager, the supervisor told her: “Since you can’t work under the stress from being harassed, maybe this isn’t the job for you.”
Williams filed a lawsuit against Metro in U.S. District Court on Aug. 11, alleging sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation.
“It’s definitely a culture at [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority],” Williams said in an interview, recalling incidents with male co-workers who would occasionally make inappropriate comments. “But I’d never experienced it like this.”
Metro declined to comment on the case, citing the pending litigation, though spokesman Richard L. Jordan added that Metro “has a clear policy against sexual harassment.”
“We investigate complaints that arise and take appropriate disciplinary action as appropriate,” Jordan said.
The lawsuit is one of several incidents that prompted a memo sent to employees last week from Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld reminding staff of the agency’s “zero tolerance for discrimination, sexual harassment and nepotism” and “prohibition against retaliation in any form.”
“We must renew our commitment to hold ourselves and each other to the highest possible professional standards,” Wiedefeld wrote, “never retaliating against employees who are doing their jobs and expressing a good faith concern.”
The memo serves as a reminder of just how wide-ranging Metro’s problems are — and that concerns about safety culture, inspection protocol and red-signals overruns are also paired with less visible, but some say equally important, internal problems among staff.
Williams’ lawyer, Donna W. Rucker, said she has at least one other female client who is considering suing the agency for failing to prevent harassment by the same supervisor.
“Ms. Williams’ case demonstrates a lack of enforcement,” Rucker said. “Employees have come to not rely on the policy having any effect . . . because they don’t believe that it will be enforced.”
Williams is seeking $200,000 in damages from Metro. She also wants Metro officials to establish a plan or procedures on how to better comply with anti-discrimination policies and require that managers undergo further training on Equal Employment Opportunity regulations.
Reached by phone, a person who identified himself as Williams’s supervisor and an employee of Metro, declined to comment.
Williams started at Metro in 2001, working her way through different departments and jobs — from being a bus operator and an employee in the credit union, to a station manager, a train operator, and a communications specialist in Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center.
In early December 2013, she switched to a position as a bus service operations manager — a role that would give her more autonomy and a better schedule, supervising bus drivers, responding to accidents or incidents, and ensuring on-time departures and arrivals during morning and afternoon rush hours.
According to the narrative laid out in the lawsuit, when Williams started her new job, she was immediately uncomfortable around her new supervisor because he frequently requested hugs and expressed anger when she mentioned her husband, who also works for Metro.
In one instance, at a gathering for a co-worker, she put her sweater on the chair next to her to save a seat for her husband. Her supervisor allegedly moved the sweater, sat in the seat, and said “I’m getting tired of this husband and wife bulls---,” according to the lawsuit.
“I felt disrespected ... I just felt weird and sick,” Williams later recalled, sitting in the office of her lawyer. She tried to find ways to avoid him. She asked herself whether she was being clear that she didn’t want the attention. “Like, am I being firm? I’m telling him no.”
Female co-workers were sympathetic, she said, and told her that they, too, had experienced similar actions and comments.
“They said that when I started, it gave them a little bit of relief,” she said. “It was like — hey, he likes you now.”
Williams said she met with Dana Baker, a managing director at Metro, to air her concerns. At first, Baker offered sympathy: She said Williams could report to an alternate supervisor, and assured Williams that she would face no retribution for reporting her concerns.
Soon after, Williams says, her supervisor called her, irate.
“No! You ain’t talking to nobody, woman!” the lawsuit says the supervisor told her over the phone. “You don’t talk to nobody else but me!
There were other similar phone calls, Williams said. She “began to feel distressed about returning to work” due to his “unwanted advances and derogatory tone when speaking with her,” the lawsuit says.
Baker did not respond to requests for comment.
After she filed a complaint with a Metro superintendent, she was quickly assigned to a late shift that had no opportunities for overtime. According to the lawsuit, Williams heard from another manager that her supervisor had said “she would never see her husband again.”
Williams took her complaints to Baker, but the lawsuit asserts that those concerns were ultimately dismissed.
“Since you can’t work under the stress from being harassed, maybe this isn’t the job for you,” the lawsuit alleges Baker saying. “Maybe I need to find someone to take your place.”
Williams said she was hurt by the comment, believing that she’d put too much trust in Metro — and she was also angry.
“I can work under pressure — that’s the whole Metro, you’re constantly working under pressure,” Williams said in an interview. But sexual harassment, she said, is different. “But I didn’t think it would come from a teammate or a supervisor — not this kind of pressure.”
Williams’s lawyer asserts that Metro officials were aware of the supervisor's behavior toward female staff, and “failed to implement prompt, appropriate or corrective action.”
The lawsuit states that, “in addition to being humiliated, embarrassed and made to endure a great amount of pain and suffering,” Williams experienced physical side effects resulting from the stress and anxiety of her experiences, and also “incurred lost wages, loss of reputation and loss of career opportunity, now and into the future.”
Williams eventually returned to her previous job in Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center.
“I worked hard to maintain a good reputation and always relied on my work ethic for promotions,” Williams said. “And now it doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter. Coming to work, showing up, doing your job — it’s just not good enough.”