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People process through security at Denver International Airport on April 27, 2022. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

A federal lawsuit filed Monday against the City and County of Denver alleges Denver International Airport leaders retaliated against a director there after he raised concerns that he and other people of color working for the airport’s parking and transportation department were paid less than their white peers.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Denver, says city officials — including Mayor Michael Hancock, airport CEO Phillip Washington and Winfred Hensley, the former senior vice president of parking — failed to address the complaints made by the plaintiff, Benjamin Juarez, the airport’s former director of parking.

The lawsuit says working conditions became intolerable after DIA officials began threatening Juarez’ termination through unwarranted written disciplinary actions, by giving him his lowest performance review of his four-year tenure and by changing his job responsibilities without notifying him. He resigned from his job on Feb. 22, 2022.

Two months after Juarez, 37, left his job, the airport fired Hensley, his boss, for poor leadership and ineffective communication and follow up. Many employees said they strongly believed harassment, discrimination and retaliation had led to a hostile work environment in the parking and transportation department at the airport, according to the lawsuit.

Juarez is seeking compensation for lost wages and attorneys fees in the civil lawsuit, alleging the city violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for engaging in legally protected activities, including filing complaints of discrimination, and discrimination based on national origin, color, race, and sex.   

“The law is very clear that you have a right to complain about discrimination in your workplace, and discrimination against others in your workplace, without being retaliated against by the employer,” said Steven Murray, a Denver attorney representing Juarez.

“It’s critically important that employees have the freedom to complain internally about discrimination, without losing their jobs or having their conditions worsened at work,” Murray said.

Denver officials on Wednesday declined to comment. Melissa Sisneros, a spokeswoman for the city attorney’s office, said the city had not been properly served with the lawsuit and had only learned about it from news reporters.

Juarez was promoted to director of parking in February 2020 and given a job classification of “airport commercial director.” Soon after, Hensley hired a white male with the same job classification whose starting salary was $18,000 per year higher than Juarez’s salary.

Starting in May 2021, Juarez complained multiple times to Hensley and other DIA officials about the pay imbalance, saying he had performed more complex duties than the other employee with a higher salary, according to the lawsuit.

Hensley promised Juarez he would investigate the complaint. Juarez was never provided with the results of any investigation, the complaint says.

In May 2021, Juarez advocated for one of his Black male colleagues to be promoted at DIA. Hensley refused to promote the man, questioning his qualifications for the job. Juarez continued advocating for the man’s promotion and eventually the man was promoted and given a 7% salary increase.

In May 2021, Hensley insinuated that he had promoted the Black male employee that Juarez had advocated for to make the department look good to the next airport CEO, Washington, who also is Black.

Around the same time, a white male employee was promoted under the same job title and given a salary increase of about 37%.

According to the lawsuit, Juarez complained at least five more times to several officials at the airport. 

In October 2021, Steve Jaquith, chief operating officer at DIA, served Juarez a written disciplinary action alleging Juarez had engaged in misconduct and that he could face further discipline including dismissal. The next day, the airport changed Juarez’s job duties without informing him, the complaint said.

Soon after, Juarez filed a dispute resolution request with the city career service authority. Four days later, he was placed on investigatory leave with no written explanation. Shortly after his return, he was given a second notice of discipline, alleging he had again engaged in misconduct, which Juarez again denied. 

Less than a week later, Juarez received what his complaint called the lowest evaluation rating he had ever been given during his employment. Juarez and his lawyer attended a meeting to discuss the misconduct allegations. The meeting ended with airport supervisors determining that no discipline was warranted for Juarez.

After Juarez complained again to airport executives in late February, 2022, about unequal pay, they said they would conduct an investigation. Juarez resigned soon after and, the lawsuit says, he was replaced by a white male who had a high school degree but was paid about $25,000 more per year than Juarez, who has an MBA.

The airport’s chief operating officer Jaquith sent a letter to employees shortly after Juarez resigned stating the airport has “zero tolerance” for inappropriate or discriminatory behavior and that he was looking forward to hearing from employees on how best to move forward together.

In a disciplinary meeting, Hensley blamed the perceptions of discrimination, pay inequities and retaliation on Juarez, according to the lawsuit.

The Denver Post, in 2022, through a public records request, found that employee concerns about the workplace culture in the parking and transportation department had grown so widespread that DIA hired an outside firm to investigate. Scrutiny had focused on Hensley’s leadership style before he was fired from the department. Among three employees reprimanded for the audit, two have left amid turmoil within the department, according to the Denver Post.

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment reporter for the Colorado Sun and her work is funded by a grant from the Colorado Trust. She has covered crime and courts plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel and Morocco....