Racial abuse costly for firm
Lawsuit settled for $14.5 million
When Pablo Urenda experienced racial slurs and the threat of physical harm while working on a Patterson-UTI Drilling Co. rig near Rifle a decade ago, along with retaliation when he complained to supervisors, he had no idea just how rampant the problem of discrimination was within the company.
But thanks in part to his willingness to work with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as it pursued a larger investigation into the company, Patterson-UTI and the EOCC have reached a $14.5 million settlement that the EEOC estimates could affect 1,000 or more people.
“This is a big deal to him,” said Karen Zulauf, who along with fellow Boulder attorney Wil Smith has represented the Battlement Mesa resident in his discrimination complaint.
In a news release Monday, the EEOC said Patterson-UTI “had engaged in a nationwide pattern or practice of discrimination against minority employees.”
“The EEOC charged the company with race and national origin discrimination, harassment and retaliation at its facilities throughout the country,” the agency said.
The alleged actions included assigning minorities to the lowest-level jobs, failing to train and promote them, and disproportionately disciplining and demoting them. The company also “tolerated a hostile work environment on its rigs. Among other things, the EEOC claimed that these employees endured frequent and pervasive barrages of racial and ethnic slurs, jokes, and comments, as well as verbal and physical harassment and intimidation of minority employees. The EEOC further asserted employees who opposed or complained about discriminatory practices suffered retaliation, including discriminatory discipline and discharge,” the agency said.
Said Zulauf, “It’s really hard to believe that these things can really happen in this day and age.”
She said Urenda was an experienced rig worker when Patterson-UTI hired him and assigned him to the rig near Rifle in 2005. He was told he would receive training and have the opportunity to move to a higher position, she said.
Urenda was one of three Latinos working on the mostly-white rig crew. Zulauf said the three were called “tacos,” “beaners,” “wetbacks” and other derogatory names that often were preceded by expletives.
The three would sometimes be called “lazy Mexicans,” even though all three are American citizens, Zulauf said. When photos of the rig crew were taken, the Latinos were left out, she said.
She said Urenda once heard someone make a racist joke about African-Americans after they underwent training with another rig crew that included an African-American. After a Native American applied for a job, Urenda’s supervisor said he wouldn’t let any Indians work on the rig, and the applicant apparently wasn’t hired, Zulauf said.
Zulauf said Urenda told her things escalated from there. While one Latino was using a portable toilet, two white men allegedly opened the door and threw a bucket of cleaning solution on him. The solution contained diesel fuel.
Urenda complained to a supervisor that day about his concerns about being intimidated while at work.
“When he said that the supervisor just grinned at him and didn’t say anything,” Zulauf said.
Urenda said another time two whites put a Latino worker in a headlock and dragged him to the drilling area on the rig, and one of the men started unscrewing the drilling pipe so that pressurized drilling mud inside could spray onto the victim’s face. Urenda and other Latino had to pull the man away from the others, and the supervisor saw what happened but did nothing, Zulauf said.
“It just made Pablo really worried about his safety and the safety of the other guys,” she said.
Zulauf said Urenda reported that the next day the man who had been attacked went up to one of his attackers and said he wanted the two of them to just get along, at which point the other man grabbed him, turned him upside down and held him by his feet before dropping him onto the metal flooring. Again the supervisor allegedly did nothing.
The assailant then allegedly brought a gun to work and set it on a table, pointing it at the Latinos.
One of the Latinos quit, while Urenda told his supervisor he wanted to learn to work on the rig derrick, in hopes he could get a transfer. The supervisor agreed, but when he made a mistake while on the derrick other workers peppered him with obscenities. At that point Urenda told his supervisor and higher manager he was tired of the racism, would be filing a discrimination claim and wanted to be transferred.
He allegedly was told to go find another Patterson-UTI rig that would take him. He took time off, succeeded in getting another rig supervisor to agree to hire him, but was then fired by the company for not having been at work.
Urenda was “just kind of stunned,” Zulauf said. He called a higher-level Patterson-UTI office and asked to speak to someone who handles discrimination cases.
“The guy says to him, ‘Sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut,’ ” Zulauf said.
Urenda contacted Smith, the attorney, and they filed a claim with the EEOC. The agency later called Smith and said it was getting claims from other minority workers about the company, and asked if Urenda was interested in being involved in a bigger effort on behalf of all minority workers there.
Zulauf said Urenda knew the process likely would take longer than if he just pursued his individual claim.
“But I think he felt it was very important. … I think he feels very honored to be a part of something that is bigger than him.”
She praised the work of EEOC attorneys in pulling together information about what was happening all around the country. The agency consolidated charges from several individuals and conducted an extensive nationwide investigation.
According to a consent decree filed in conjunction with a lawsuit, and approved by a federal judge last week, Patterson-UTI must put $12.26 million into a settlement fund to distribute to the class of discrimination victims. Separate out-of-court agreements with the EEOC boost the total monetary relief for victims to the $14.5 million.
Anyone who thinks they may have been discriminated or retaliated against by the company should call 303-866-1322. Those affected include African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, Asian-Americans and biracial people, the EEOC says.
The settlement also requires Patterson-UTI to take steps including hiring a claims administrator to distribute compensation to victims, providing anti-discrimination training to all employees and conducting outreach activities to attract qualified minority job candidates.
Patterson-UTI Energy Inc. said this week in a news release that it encourages those who are eligible to submit claims under the settlement involving its subsidiary when they receive notice from the settlement administrator in about 60 days.
Andy Hendricks, the company’s chief executive officer since 2012, stated, “We take this matter very seriously and are pleased to have reached a resolution. We have built a culture of respect, diversity and equal opportunity in our company and have zero tolerance for anything less.”