A legal complaint cites sex discrimination in Cambridge’s Department of Public Works. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A sex discrimination complaint has been filed against the City of Cambridge, alleging that a Department of Public Works employee has been paid less than male coworkers, put in danger when men have not and punished repeatedly for complaining about it since 2016.

In the complaint, received Jan. 24 by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, building projects coordinator Michelle Maher describes work at as a manager that is paid at a secretarial level despite requirements for evening and weekend hours at sometimes hazardous sites. It also describes her efforts to work on a resolution with her superiors in the department, the Law Department, City Manager Louis A. DePasquale and then mayor E. Denise Simmons– whom she said “empathized, but could not interfere” because of the way the city’s government is structured.

The city was served the complaint Feb. 5, according to Maher’s lawyer, Rebecca G. Pontikes of Pontikes Law in Boston. “They didn’t respond at all,” Pontikes said.

“Their attitude is ‘Prove it in court,’ and that’s what we’re going to do,” Pontikes said.

Asked for comment on the complaint, city spokesman Lee Gianetti said Thursday that “The city cannot comment on confidential personnel matters.”

“Year after year”

City councillor E. Denise Simmons was approached for help in 2017 by a Public Works employee who felt discriminated against, according to a February legal complaint. (Photo: Derek Kouyoumjian)

Maher’s complaints may sound familiar. Some seven years ago that the city paid out around $14 million in legal settlements and damages to female employees of color who said they felt discriminated against and then victims of retaliation when they complained. The most prominent of those cases was brought by Malvina Monteiro, who took the bulk of the millions after repeated failed legal appeals by then city manager Robert W. Healy.

“I’m tired of hearing the same type of complaints from the same departments coming from city employees year after year,” Simmons said in October, citing various complaints from women who said they “feel trapped in a toxic environment” where they are not treated as equals with the same rules or chances for advancement. She pointed to the Information Technology Department as one source of complaints, and said two African American women had retired recently “because they couldn’t fight it anymore.”

As a councillor, Simmons filed a policy order to City Manager Louis A. DePasquale to review internal mechanisms for how city staffers could report grievances, “to determine if this system is functioning as it should.” But the Oct. 28 order lingered until the end of the year with others awaiting reports before being placed on file due to the end of the legislative term.

There was a pattern, Pontikes said: “In the past decade there have been a lot of complaints from women accusing the city of sex discrimination.”

Dangerous work

Maher has worked for the city for more than 30 years, and has been with Public Works for 20 under superintendent of buildings Paul Lyle, according to the complaint. Since 2015, she has managed renovations and construction projects in Cambridge’s public buildings, doing everything from choosing contractors based on the background checks she runs, researching materials, setting construction timelines, interpreting architectural drawings, leading meetings and overseeing project details to ensure work goes smoothly and complies with all laws. She even “writes the substance of Lyle’s letters justifying the money spent to the Purchasing Department,” the complaint says.

“Her supervision is performed onsite the majority of the time and takes place in early mornings, in evenings and on weekends. The work onsite is often hazardous and dangerous, requiring contact with products and conditions that can be damaging, unsafe or toxic,” the complaint says.

Public Works’ de-emphasizing of Maher’s duties may have risked her health. She has been denied safety training given to male coworkers and has not been given protective gear even to make repeated visits to hazardous materials abatement sites where there was bird excrement, mold and lead and “Lyle had test results showing the toxicity of the site,” the complaint says. “In essence, Lyle put Maher in danger to hide Cambridge’s discrimination and retaliation.”

“[One such] project did not proceed in 2018 because the contractor quit over the toxicity of the site,” the complaint says.

Lower pay

Still, she is identified as a “coordinator” and gets a salary between $19,185 and $28,186 less than men with similar duties, skills and experience. “Lyle provides almost no oversight of her work on renovations projects, particularly the on-site component. If Maher makes recommendations to Lyle, he always follows them. Lyle has referred to Maher as ‘upper management,’ but Cambridge does not compensate her equally to the other male members of ‘upper management,’” the complaint says.

Attempts to address the inequality date back to April 2016, which is when “Lyle began a pattern of retaliation against her which he repeats every time Maher makes a request for her salary to be adjusted,” according to the complaint. “After she raises the salary inequity issue, Lyle removes Maher from managing projects – giving the duties to men or managing the project himself … The men to whom Lyle assigned Maher’s management projects did poor work, so Lyle repeatedly returned the management of the projects to Maher. His pattern was both to punish her for her complaints and to hide her management duties so that he could justify paying her less. Lyle has continued his pattern through the present.”

“A grave, grave mistake”

Maher met repeatedly with DePasquale throughout 2017, but it did not go as she hoped. Instead, he offered a position that would raise Maher’s pay temporarily by $3,000, the complaint says.

When she turned down the offer, DePasquale warned her: “You are making a grave, grave mistake … Owen [O’Riordan] is never giving you another dime,” the complaint says.

It was then that Maher spoke with Simmons, but discovered that city councillors feel constrained from weighing in on personnel matters by the city’s Plan E charter, which says they cannot “in any manner take part in the appointment or removal of officers and employees … for whose administration the city manager is responsible.”

Statute of limitations

Further complaints to DePasquale’s office last year were equally fruitless, even after Maher said she had been sexually harassed in the workplace. The incidents of sexually harassment are past the statute of limitations, Pontikes said Thursday.

Still, it sparked a meeting with the city solicitor and personnel director in July, where Maher hoped to talk about her pay inequity and found that the officials were interested only in asking whether there were examples of sexual harassment within the statute of limitations, the complaint says. Both roles are filled by women: Nancy Glowa and Sheila Keady Rawson. “Asked if the two would support her as a public servant and female colleague in seeking equitable pay,” according to the complaint, “each one said, ‘No, I will not.’”

Maher continues to work with the city in Public Works.

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