An employee of the L.A. Department of Water and Power is suing the utility, along with four of her colleagues, over what she is calling a years-long campaign of harassment, retaliation and discrimination.
Saiara Shams, 41, filed a lawsuit in L.A. Superior Court earlier this year, alleging her co-workers made derogatory comments about her religion, retaliated after she reported wasteful contracts and prevented her from moving up the ranks at DWP.
Shams also filed complaints with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
DWP spokesman Michael Ventre declined to comment, citing pending litigation. “We take all allegations of discrimination seriously,” he said.
The four co-workers cited in the lawsuit — Ana Romero, Henry Williams, Zebbra Corbin and Glenn Barry — either didn’t respond to requests for comment or declined to comment.
Shams was born in Bangladesh and moved to California in 1997, becoming an American citizen in 2000. When she joined the team that manages the power grid, she said, she was the only Muslim woman in her department. Romero was her boss.
Romero, according to court documents and an interview with The Times, allegedly made fun of Shams’ accent, compared her to Islamic terrorists, told her she “needed to take an English writing class because she was not born in the U.S,” and lamented that she would have rather hired a Latinx person.
The alleged abuse got worse, according to the lawsuit, once other employees got involved. The comments also occurred more frequently if a terrorist attack occurred, Shams said.
Despite repeated complaints, Shams alleges that her bosses at DWP did nothing to stop it or punish those involved.
“If I knew I would be treated like a second-class citizen, then I wouldn’t have spent all these years here,” Shams said through tears in an interview at the office of her attorney Jill Shigut. “How could this happen in California, much less in Los Angeles?”
At first, Shams said, she kept quiet about how she was being treated, because she didn’t want to rock the boat and felt she was lucky to have a job. But as she studied for the civil service exam, in hopes of getting promoted, she read more about harassment and hazing.
In August 2018, Shams filed a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, and reported the alleged harassment to DWP’s office of special investigations.
The same day, Shams alleges in the lawsuit, Williams came to her cubicle with two security guards and “served her with a work directive ordering her to be evaluated by an LADWP counselor through its Employee Assistance Program.”
The lawsuit notes that it’s rare for security to be involved in issuing these directives and that these directives are “often misused abused and manipulated by management.”
Shams initially refused to comply, but eventually agreed to leave.
Williams, some other colleagues and several security guards escorted her out of the building and to her car, according to the lawsuit.
Shams, who still works at DWP, later attended a counseling session with her union representative, and an evaluation found that she was not in need of counseling, according to the lawsuit.
“Every time I talk about the incident, I just can’t believe this was happening to me in America,” she said.
Her case against DWP is pending, and a trial date has yet to be set.