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Sunday, February 15, 2015

African American History Month: Unsung Hero African American Jessie James Williams Survived both Race and Age Discrimination

African American Jessie James Williams grew up in a small town in Arkansas, where water fountains in the town said "white only".  He was later fired in Las Vegas after working for the same employer, a waste collection company, for  31 years. His boss told him he was too old and he was disposed of like the garbage. He stated in his elegant and inspirational testimony where he tells of his life of a strong and caring work ethic, "The thing that bothered me the most was that I planned on working for this company for the rest of my work life and then retiring. The reality was that we were thrown out like the garbage that we had collected for so many years."

Jessie James Williams never gave up but kept working for a better life for himself and his family. When he was fired due to age discrimination, he legally sought justice. He testified, “if you are wrongfully terminated, you cannot sit down. Life will go on. You need to take all of the tools that you have learned, the licenses that you have maintained and get back up and go. I survived and I will tell you that I was fortunate that my family was able to maintain the same lifestyle during this painful period but this was not true for some of my peers who lost their homes and livelihood. Some of the other foremen could not provide for their families and meet their basic needs.”

In his life Jessie James Williams suffered both racial discrimination and age discrimination. In his elegant testimony he stated:

"First, age discrimination is alive and well in the United States of America. Especially at a time when employers are able to blame layoffs on the economy and downsizing we need to pay special attention to who is getting sent home. Are they letting the older workers go and keeping younger, inexperienced workers? Are these companies using the words "new" when they mean "young"? Age discrimination is real, because it happened to me. People may not believe that it is equal to the other forms of discrimination that we hear about based on race, gender, sexual preference, but I have experienced discrimination early in my life and I know the pain. I felt the same pain when I was thrown out because of my age, as when I was not let in because of my race. There is no difference in being deprived of your right to work because of color as being deprived of being able to work because of your age.”

Not only Jesse James Williams experienced racial discrimination as a child. Discrimination against children because of their race or color has not been eradicated. As reported in the New York Times, schools’ discipline against girls differs by race and hue. When he was asked about the racial discrimination that he faced in Arkansas and how it compared with the age discrimination in his employment in Las Vegas, Williams stated that he had gotten used to the racial discrimination that  he faced growing up in Arkansas, but age discrimination bothered him more. His job became his career, working 18-hour days, sometimes six days a week. He learned new skills, multitasking,  and how to utilize computer dispatching system. He eventually advanced to head foreman and won company awards, as reported, in the AARP.

"We put our life into it," he said. "You feel like that's your job; that's your home. Between 2003 and 2005, the waste collection company fired Williams and about 20 others over 40 years of age. A government agency took the case and after six years of litigation, waste collection company Republic Services paid nearly $2.9 million to Williams and the other workers to settle an age discrimination lawsuit.

Jessie James Williams is not bitter but feels he is one of the lucky ones. He described in his inspirational testimony, not only the humiliation caused by race and age discrimination, but also his lifelong strong work ethic and the effects of the age discrimination :

"Written Testimony of Jessie James Williams

My name is Jessie James Williams. I was an employee of Republic Silver State Disposal for 31 years when I was terminated due to my age in January of 2003. This may be surprising to many people when they hear that discrimination is still ongoing at this day and age. As a result the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or EEOC is a valuable tool to be used against this discrimination.

I was born February 17, 1946 in a very small town in Arkansas when the word discrimination was heard and displayed often. I have been to restaurants where I had to go to the back to eat and have seen water fountains and seats that said "whites only." I was raised during a time when it was common for a child to be sent to the fields to pick cotton instead of being sent to school. These factors instilled a work ethic in me that has continued until this day. When I was picking cotton, I realized that I wanted a better life and did everything in my power to obtain a stable job that would allow me to make my dreams a reality.

I was hired at Silver State Disposal shortly after I arrived in Las Vegas, Nevada. When I started work, the company only had 25 trucks. We worked two shifts and had one goal: to pick up all of the garbage. During the first 10 years that I worked for the company I was promoted from a pitcher to a foreman. A pitcher is the man that is on the back of the truck that picks up cans in residential areas and dumps them in the truck; from that position I became a driver. I drove the trucks called front loaders that picked up the large containers at apartments and businesses and drove the "roll off" trucks, which are the trucks that pick up containers at the hotels, hospitals and larger businesses. This was all accomplished in the first 10 years of my employment with the company. I say this to say, that there was not a driving position in the company that I had not done. I was a hard worker, always on time and always at work. As a result, I was promoted to a Foreman position.

As I stated, the company was small and the population of Las Vegas minimal when I was hired to work, but as the city grew, so did the company. This company is now a multimillion dollar company and was one when I was terminated. When the company was bought by Republic Services, I was in a meeting where the people from Florida came down and told the Foreman that Silver State Disposal was a "diamond in the desert." They said that it was due to our supervision that this company ran so well. During my 31 years, we went from dispatching the few trucks on a hand written board to dispatching hundreds of trucks by computer. I was hand-picked by the owner of the company to learn and test the computer system as well as to train other foremen. During my 31 years, I was promoted to Head Foreman and received several awards including Foreman of the Year. A short time later, I was called into a room with my Supervisor and told that I wasn't needed anymore.

After I worked 6-day work weeks, worked every holiday, and worked days that started at 3:00 a.m. and often ended late in the afternoon, I was told that I wasn't needed any longer. The company wanted to go in "another direction."

I should have been surprised, but I wasn't. Why? Because the men who worked under me had told me that the company was getting rid of all of the "old guys." Because I had heard a Supervisor tell me that they were going to "get rid of the old foremen and get some new blood."

I was not surprised, but I cannot begin to explain how devastated that I was. The only way to describe this feeling was that it was so overwhelming that I felt as if I had been knocked to my knees. I had to go home to my wife and young children and tell them that people that they knew personally had fired me. My wife and I had been out to dinner and on motorcycle rides with my Manager. He knew that I had two young children at home. My wife and children also knew and were known by the Assistant Manager. I had to relate that the job that I had gone to for 31 years of my life was literally taken away from me. I had to tell them that all of the events that I had missed at their schools, the holidays that I had to "run in and out" of the house due to my job were all for nothing. There was no future for me at Republic Silver State Disposal. I soon found out that there was no future for four other foremen that I had worked with over the years either. They had terminated us all.

The thing that bothered me the most was that I planned on working for this company for the rest of my work life and then retiring. The reality was that we were thrown out like the garbage that we had collected for so many years.

After the realization set in that I was no longer an employee of Republic Silver State Disposal, I was determined to continue on with my life and to maintain the quality of life that my family was accustomed to. The initial problem, however, was that the world had changed in the time that I worked at Republic. When I started there, there were no applications to complete. No resumes to download, no computer testing that was mandatory to get a job. It was as if I had entered into a new world. I had a work history better than most people, but felt lost and had no experience in this new world. Once I mastered the application process, I was again humiliated during the interview process when more than one person asked me what I had done to get fired from a job where I had worked more than thirty years? One hiring manager asked me if I had killed someone. What do you say when you were terminated for no reason? I came up with the standard answer that my position was eliminated due to downsizing. But this was not only humiliating, it was letting everyone know that what they did to me was okay, that it was necessary, when I knew in my heart that it was not.

I have had a few positions since Republic Services. Initially, I worked driving a cement truck. I worked side by side with some of my former employees, and some who left on their own. One co-worker told my Supervisor that he could not train me because I taught him all that he knew. Subsequently I was hired to work as a truck driver, driving an 18-wheeler which I did until I relocated from Las Vegas. Upon arriving in Arkansas, I was hired to work for a local garbage company. I applied because I had to prove to myself and my family that I was able to do it. I worked with several men in their twenties (I was 60 years old at the time) who told me that they all had a hard time keeping up with me. I didn't need to do this type of manual labor any longer, but I had to know for myself that I was still able to do it. I worked for three months before I went back to truck driving, but when I left, the owner of the company practically begged me to stay: because I knew the business and was a great help to him during my time there."

Jessie James Williams is not bitter but lives with a sense of gratitude for his life. He encourages others who suffer from race and age discrimination, to not give up,   "If you are wrongfully terminated, you cannot sit down. Life will go on. You need to take all of the tools that you have learned, the licenses that you have maintained and get back up and go."

Contact Hope A. Lang, Attorney at Law, today for a free consultation.

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