A former Eugene Water and Electric Board meter reader filed a U.S. District Court lawsuit against EWEB on Aug. 3, alleging that the company failed to protect him from repeated instances of racial discrimination, including death threats and attempted violence. The complaint claims that this harassment led to financial and emotional harm and asks for compensation for medical treatment and 20 years of past and future wage loss due to emotional harm.
“The employer still has a responsibility to make the workplace safe,” says Meredith Holley, the lawyer representing the meter reader, Hogon Mulgrave, in the case. She says there are “a number of ways” EWEB could have worked to protect its employees, and that the lack of protection “created an unsafe work environment, not just for Mr. Mulgrave, but for other Black employees and other meter readers.”
Mulgrave, a Black U.S. citizen who immigrated from Jamaica, worked for EWEB from 2010 to 2020. The lawsuit documents a number of instances in which Mulgrave alleges he faced harassment and discrimination based on his race and national origin.
While at EWEB, Mulgrave visited customers’ properties to record energy and water use readings. EWEB has an easement on its customers’ property, which means employees can legally enter property to make a reading.
In some cases, EWEB installed “smart readers,” which allowed employees to make remote “radio readings.” At least one EWEB supervisor allowed remote readings for homes that were deemed “dangerous,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that one EWEB customer told Mulgrave they “could shoot [him] on [their] property” in 2018. EWEB did not take action to protect Mulgrave, the document claims.
According to the lawsuit, three other EWEB customers allegedly threatened Mulgrave with a gun when Mulgrave went to their properties to do readings, with two of those customers calling him the n-word. The document claims that EWEB took action to protect Mulgrave by allowing him to do a radio read in the last of these instances “only after this EWEB customer threatened Mr. Mulgrave with a gun five more times.”
In Jan. 2020, Mulgrave read a meter for a house that had a Confederate flag, a Ku Klux Klan flag, a Nazi flag and four “lynching weapons,” according to the lawsuit. The document alleges that Mulgrave’s supervisor refused to allow him to do the readings remotely. A couple days later, EWEB HR told Mulgrave that “customers would not be required to remove racist symbols from their property in order to receive in-person meter reading services,” the lawsuit claims.
“They specifically made an internal determination that the home where there was a Nazi flag and a lynching weapon and a KKK flag did not present a danger,” Holley says.
In May 2020, an EWEB customer called Mulgrave the n-word and while holding a switchblade threatened to cut off his head, fingers and feet. According to court documents, the customer “repeatedly and angrily” called Mulgrave the n-word — between 30 and 40 times, the lawsuit claims. The customer threatened to kill Mulgrave roughly 10 times, according to the complaint. He also sprayed chemicals on Mulgrave and attempted to light Mulgrave on fire before law enforcement arrived.
The customer was eventually found guilty of a first-degree bias crime and two counts of assaulting a public safety officer.
The lawsuit alleges that EWEB made no effort to support Mulgrave during the trial, nor did it take any action to ensure that its meter readers would be protected from future race-based attacks.
In contrast, Holley says Mulgrave witnessed a person getting hit by a train during his time working for EWEB — an experience that had nothing to do with race. “In that situation, EWEB provided him with counseling, was very attentive to his concerns, really tried to bend over backward to help him,” she says. “So that was a stark contrast, to him, between that experience and the race-based attacks that he experienced.”
EWEB customers also called the police on Mulgrave multiple times throughout his time reading meters, the lawsuit claims, with many of these instances allegedly tied to his race.
Internally, Mulgrave was consistently denied promotions in favor of non-Black candidates with Pacific Northwest accents, the complaint alleges. Toward the end of his time with EWEB, employees who Mulgrave had trained were chosen for promotion over him.
During multiple hiring processes, EWEB’s hiring staff allegedly told Mulgrave that his accent was difficult to understand — a claim Holley disputes — and said that they “could train a monkey to do this job” — a racist analogy historically used to discriminate against Black people.
“He kept trying to get some more experience, to understand what he could do better, to be this exceptional employee and to give everyone the benefit of the doubt,” Holley says. “Ultimately, it was the doctors who had to restrict him from work.”
In July 2020, Mulgrave was diagnosed with complex post traumatic stress syndrome “from the years of racial trauma he experienced working for Defendant EWEB and Defendant EWEB’s refusal to create a safe working environment, free from racial harassment and discrimination,” the lawsuit claims. Mulgrave was deemed disabled and incapable of regular work in February 2021.
EWEB spokesperson Jennifer Connors says EWEB disputes all of Mulgrave’s allegations and is “saddened” he is moving to sue in federal court. “Given there is active litigation, we won’t be making additional comments at this time,” she writes in an emailed statement.