The first racial slur came a few weeks into Cary Burton’s new job in the oil and gas industry.
A black man in his late 40s, Mr. Burton was hired in April 2011 to drive a water truck for Heckmann Corp. at its facilities around Williamsport. He delivered fresh water to shale gas well sites and hauled dirty water back for disposal. He was the only black worker on the night shift.
Another black man, who worked during the day, told Mr. Burton about the noose found hanging at a work site in July 2011. One day, when looking for safety glasses, Mr. Burton saw the rope stashed in a file cabinet, according to court documents.
He quit in August, four months into his tenure, according to a legal complaint.
By that time, Mr. Burton had been called “boy,” “buckwheat,” “niggahjew.” He’d been told by co-workers that “old black dogs should be hung with new white rope” and by supervisors to not “take it personal.” During staff meetings, a co-worker stretched out his hand in a Nazi salute and barked, “Heil Hitler.”
“That’s the way their fathers taught them,” a supervisor told Mr. Burton, according to a legal complaint.
When news of his complaints reached Heckmann’s corporate office, the company hired an investigator to interview employees. Most — including three other black workers — said they’d heard racial slurs but believed Mr. Burton was being too sensitive, court documents state.
In a deposition, one of his supervisors said he never scolded the employee doing the Nazi salute because he thought the worker was just “being goofy.”
Two years after filing the lawsuit, Mr. Burton and Heckmann reached a settlement that includes a confidentiality agreement. His attorney said that bars Mr. Burton from discussing the case.
Work sites far from HR
There have been dozens of discrimination lawsuits filed against oil and gas companies over the past decade, more than several involving nooses. Nothing suggests the issue is unique to the energy industry. But the industry’s working conditions — isolated locations, lack of diversity, breakneck pace — sometimes allow racist behavior to go unchecked.
“The way the industry works is everything’s at these remote sites. They’re out in the middle of nowhere,” said Sally Cimini, an employment attorney with Leech Tishman. Many employees never see anyone from human resources on site, she said.
“When things were growing so quickly, they would go into acquisition mode and acquire small companies that maybe weren’t so sophisticated as the large ones” in terms of human resource training and policies.
Workers, too, came and went daily, jumping from good offer to better offer without the typical on-boarding of a more traditional job. Good workers were promoted to supervisors, sometimes with no consideration for whether they would make good managers.
“Suddenly, they’re in a position of supervising their buddies,” Ms. Cimini said.
Add to that the unique pecking order on a well site where many contractors work on a project and it’s sometimes unclear who’s responsible for training and disciplining workers — the contractor, the staffing company that supplied the laborers or the operator who hired them all.
‘It’s a rope’
In 2008, Kevin Madden filed a lawsuit against Ohio-based L.A. Pipeline Construction Co. for tolerating, among other things, nooses being displayed in a company truck. He suspected that black and minority workers were getting shortchanged on the job as well and that supervisors hadn’t done enough to stop workers from using racial slurs.
His supervisor said, in a deposition, that he asked the men driving the truck about the nooses and was told that workers used them to hang their safety glasses, that they were a Halloween stunt, and that they weren’t “legal nooses” anyway, which the workers explained had 13 wraps. These had only 11, they said.
In any case, the workers assured him it wasn’t a racial thing.
When, during the deposition, an attorney asked the supervisor if he was aware that nooses were associated with slavery and lynching and that they are offensive, he said, no, “it’s a rope.”
The president of the pipeline company, a white man, said in his deposition that years ago he found a noose at a job site with a burlap sack and his name on it hanging from the rope.
“How did that make you feel?” the lawyer asked.
“At the time, I thought it was, you know, too much horseplaying,” he said.
He later learned that a gas inspector with a utility — a guy who inscribed Bible verses on wooden knives he whittled from lathes used in pipeline ditches — had hung the noose. The pair laughed about it when they ran into each other at a Bob Evans restaurant years later, he said.
It’s not uncommon for people in charge to downplay the racial motivations of such episodes, according to Sam Cordes, an employment attorney in Pittsburgh who has represented scores of clients claiming racial discrimination, many in the oil and gas industry.
“I’ve been doing discrimination law for 30 years and I’ve not seen this many noose cases in one industry,” he said. “I’ve seen three within the past year.”
Discrimination lawsuits in oil and gas come in different shapes and colors: A number charge sexism and ethnic discrimination against Native Americans, Middle Easterners and Hispanics.
In a lawsuit filed in December, a Bridgeville man who worked for Nomac Drilling charged that colleagues and supervisors teased him about having a Mexican wife, using racial slurs and demanding she make them “spic enchiladas.”
A case filed in May pitted a Palestinian man working on a Consol Energy Inc. rig in West Virginia against colleagues who made terrorist references, alluding to bombs and calling him “Taliban.” The remarks, he alleged, came from fellow workers and supervisors.
Almost none of these cases makes it to trial. Few have progressed beyond the initial complaint and the company’s answer. The vast majority end in settlements, which include restrictive confidentiality agreements that bar the plaintiffs from discussing the cases with anyone.
Many employment contracts now have a clause stipulating that any employment dispute will be dealt with outside of court, through an alternative resolution procedure. The effect is that many charges of racial discrimination exist without a public paper trail.
Even those not legally bound to silence are reluctant to speak about the treatment of minorities in the oil and gas fields.
“You don’t want to be a snitch, basically,” said Anthony Terrell, a truck driver from Oklahoma who spent 10 years in the oil and gas industry and can count on one hand the number of black workers he saw there.
Mr. Terrell said he saw minorities passed over for promotions and heard their bosses say they “don’t want those types of people doing those types of jobs.”
“I’ve seen it all, heard it all,” he said, but he never said anything, not even when investigators called to get his take on a case they were building against his former employer, Patterson-UTI — a nationwide racial discrimination case that would end in a $12.5 million settlement with the company, one of the largest involving an oil and gas firm.
“I was new and I didn’t want to start no trouble and run the risk of losing my job over it,” Mr. Terrell said.
He spoke now only because he’d left the oil and gas industry, he said.
When Kris Kirk, who founded a training program for black men in Pittsburgh to get into the oil and gas industry, called her alumni to ask about racism in the field, she was shocked to hear that most had either witnessed or experienced it.
“But none of our men are willing to go on record for fear of losing their hard-earned career positions,” she said.
Changing the culture
It’s hard to quantify the representation of minorities in field jobs. A study commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute indicates that in 2010 about 8 percent of blue-collar workers in exploration and production and 5 percent of blue-collar workers in midstream were black. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, black workers made up 12 percent of the total workforce that year.
That same industry study predicted those numbers would grow substantially as the oil and gas industry expands over the next several decades.
Andy Hendricks, president and CEO of Patterson-UTI Energy Inc., said his company has changed its recruiting practices to target a more diverse pool of workers.
Patterson, bruised from a number of allegations of racial and ethnic discrimination that culminated in a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission last year, has hired a vice president of diversity and rolled out a training program emphasizing respect for co-workers.
“It’s important for management, including myself and people on my team, to set the right tone in the company,” Mr. Hendricks said. “Drilling rigs are relatively isolated. That creates some challenges.”
Patterson employees now have several ways they can report discrimination complaints, including a silent whistle hotline.
As part of the settlement agreement, the company is making an attempt to survey all of its minority workers and must submit biannual reports to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for the next three years.