New York, NY – Members of the United Probation Officers Association (UPOA) filed a class-action lawsuit in January against the City of New York and its Department of Probation for alleged discriminatory practices towards women of color.
“This is a class-action suit on behalf of a punitive class,” said Yetta Kurland, the attorney representing the DOP workers. “We estimate that there are many thousands, if not hundreds of employees who fall under this claim.”
The class-action lawsuit will include former employees going back three years before 2021, according to Kurland.
“It could be upwards of 1,000 employees,” Kurland said. “This litigation seeks to remedy discriminatory pay and employment opportunities. We want the City of New York to pay its employees. We want it to give its employees employment opportunities in a level way – it should be merit, skill and knowledge, not any discretion that would have a discriminatory impact on the employees. That is in the employee’s best interest, the city’s best interest and the community’s best interest.”
Dalvanie Powell, president of the UPOA, agrees.
“This has been going on way before this administration and is not personal, but I hope we can work with the city officials and take a wrong and make it right,” said Powell. “Martin Luther King’s birthday is this week and he said, ‘we shouldn’t be judge by the color of our skin, but the content of our character.’ To add to that, we shouldn’t judge based on gender or sexual preferences.”
The lawsuit alleges that since the department’s demographics started to change from predominantly white men 30 years ago to mostly women of color, probation officers’ starting salary began to drop. Caseloads for officers have increased substantially, promotions to higher-paying jobs are hard to come by for women of color. Most women of color rarely reach their maximum salary despite nearly 30 years of service.
“The lawsuit filed by the United Probation Officers Association (UPOA) is meritless,” according to a DOP statement. “The New York City Department of Probation is committed to having a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace and has fully abided to the contract, including compensation structure and all other terms, that was negotiated by the UPOA as the exclusive collective bargaining representative of NYC Probation Officers for the past 40 years.”
In 2016, New York Attorney General Letitia James – then public advocate – issued a report that there was a more than $5.8 billion pay gap between men and women in New York City agencies.
“I was astounded by the audit,” said Powell, who became the president of UPOA that year. “We are so behind in our salaries that we had to go this route.”
In 2017, James’ new report: Tipping the Scales: Wage and Hiring Inequality in New York City Agencies unearthed that men earned $5,000 more than women. Also, new male probation officers made $2,500 more than new female probation officers, and that the average salary increases from 2014 to 2017 had a pay gap of $1,000 for women.
In 2020, the pay gap between white men and women of color on average was $14,500, according to the lawsuit. White men receive promotions at higher rates than their female or non-white colleagues. This rise within the job ladder is not always commensurate with time in their title as probation officers, education or merit.
Tanga Johnson, a retiree who worked at the DOP for 34 years, left the department in 2019 with a base salary of $81,000 despite spending 26 years in a supervisory role.
Powell asserts that Johnson should have made more than $91,000 and that the lack of pay during her former colleague’s service to the DOP means fewer funds after retirement.
“Other law enforcement members in other agencies have a guarantee that they will get to their top salary within five years. We don’t have that structure,” said Powell. “There was, however, a white male supervisor that retired with six figures. How did that happen? He went beyond the maximum range of salary.”
Powell has no interest in taking away anything from her white male colleagues but believes it’s time for all of those employed by the DOP should get a fair shake.
“The foundation of our argument is that we are predominantly female and people of color and because of that, even our white brothers are not getting what they deserve,” said Powell. “If you look at other agencies, we are not getting what we are supposed to get.”
Powell has nothing but respect for other law enforcement agencies but feels that the city is putting down probation officers despite the agency saving it money through its members’ work, including being peace officers and doing social work.
“We have members in our Intel Unit that are specialized to work with the NYPD, FBI and the Marshals,” said Powell. “We do eight weeks of paid training in fundamentals, arrests, warrants, firearm training, self-defense tactics and Article 3 firearms training.”
Probation officers also assess their clients based on their needs and criminal behavior, and they again try to help their clientele to re-enter society by encouraging them to set school and/or work goals to prevent recidivism, according to Powell. To keep an adult on probation costs the city $3,000 per person or $5,000 per youth, but to keep an individual incarcerated costs $300,000.
“Probation is what community policing is about and who we are,” said Powell.
Unfortunately, according to Powell, the city is losing its probation officers to other agencies and early retirement because of the discrimination. The UPOA president believes the number of workers in the department dropped from more than 800 to 700 members, mostly due to lack of pay than COVID. This increases the caseloads for current workers.
“If we are about building and changing the lives of those in the probation system, why can’t we have something better,” said Powell. “Are we not entitled to a better life too?”
Editor’s Note: This story is being reposted from an earlier date.