Employee Alleges Racial Discrimination, 'Political Bullying' by Arizona Public Service

Protesters against Arizona Public Service gathered earlier this summer outside Phoenix Art Museum.EXPAND
Protesters against Arizona Public Service gathered earlier this summer outside Phoenix Art Museum.
Elizabeth Whitman
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In a damning complaint filed with the Arizona Corporation Commission, a self-identified Arizona Public Service employee said that the utility bullies its employees to vote in line with its interests, discriminates against minorities, and prioritizes profits above all else.

The letter filed on Wednesday, whose subject line included "Lack of Concern and Empathy for the Community that Suffers," presented a wide range of concerns that depicted APS as a profit-focused political machine rather than an electric utility.

In addition to excoriating APS for "political bullying," discrimination, and "more than questionable" hiring practices, the letter implied that senior APS leaders privately blamed the family of Stephanie Pullman, the 72-year-old woman who died of heat-related causes in her Sun City West home last September after APS cut her power on a 107-degree day, for her demise.

In the letter, the employee identified herself as an African-American female in the IT department. Her name and contact information were omitted or redacted in the formal complaint.

Phoenix New Times has not been able to confirm her status as an employee, but in a response to the letter, APS seemed to indicate that the woman was its employee. "APS does not comment on individual employee issues," it said, adding that it does not comment on "investigations involving employees."

Last year, APS staunchly opposed Proposition 127, a ballot initiative in 2018 that sought to create a renewable energy mandate for the state's utilities. During election season, APS and parent company Pinnacle West spent nearly $37.9 million fighting the measure, which ultimately failed by a wide margin.

According to the complaint, it also took that campaign to its employees.

The utility put out "emails, posters, meetings and other announcement [sic] advising employees to Vote No because it was not in the best interest of APS," the employee wrote.

APS also pressured employees to vote for Arizona Corporation Commission candidates "based on APS's Political Agenda," the employee wrote.

"APS Employees are told often by Senior Management and Leadership who to support, what to Support, and which candidates are sympathetic to causes that support APS's political agenda and financial goals," she added.

The bullying was worse for some employees than others: "The pressure that is placed on African Americans at APS to support... APS's agenda is almost unbearable," she wrote.

The state's biggest utility has come under fire this year amid revelations over the extent of its political involvement — tens of millions spent in the last five years to influence elections in favor of its preferred, usually Republican, candidates.

But this criticism, coming from an employee, is different. It represents a rare voice from the inside of a utility that public-facing executives tout as beloved by all.

As outgoing CEO Don Brandt told Commissioner Sandra Kennedy in a hearing on Wednesday, “The kudos that are thrown at me are frankly kind of embarrassing.”

Arizona Public Service CEO Don Brandt during a hearing before the Arizona Corporation Commission on September 4, 2019.EXPAND
Arizona Public Service CEO Don Brandt during a hearing before the Arizona Corporation Commission on September 4, 2019.
Tom Tingle/The Arizona Republic

The employee also slammed APS' hiring practices. Although the utility professes to care about Arizona's communities, she wrote, it hires contractors who are often in the U.S. on work visas rather than hiring employees and "putting revenue/income back into the communities they claim to support and serve."

Independent contractors tend to be a cheaper source of labor for companies than employees who do the same work. Employers don't have to provide benefits like health care to independent contractors, who also aren't covered by employment and labor laws.

In APS's IT department, contractors outnumbered employees by four to one, the employee wrote. "People who want and need Employment are not able to obtain it," she added.

African-American employees, who she said were mostly Democrats, "are treated unfairly," adding that an "overwhelming number" of minorities had been fired by APS in the last two years. She did not include numbers or other evidence.

Senior leaders had no regret or remorse over "the latest incident/death," she added. The cryptic description most likely referred to Pullman's death, which APS lawyers and executives, as well as Corporation Commissioners, on Wednesday agreed to simply call "the incident," after the family's lawyer announced a settlement with APS and requested privacy.

In a meeting — the letter didn't say when — APS Chief Information Officer Ted Geisler sugg

ested that the death "could have been avoided if the person would have sought assistance from Family Members," the employee wrote.

Pullman's daughters did, in fact, help her pay her bills, which is why one of her daughters believed that Pullman did not know her electricity was about to be shut off. If she had known, the daughter previously told Phoenix New Times , her mother would have asked her children for help, which they would have gladly given.

In a terse response to the Corporation Commission Friday, APS senior attorney Melissa Krueger wrote, "APS fully encourages an inclusive and diverse work environment."

"The company takes this allegation seriously and fully investigates all reports of alleged misconduct or violations of law," she added, but "the nature and outcomes of such investigations ... are confidential."

Suzanne Trevino, a spokesperson for APS, declined to comment further on the complaint or answer specific questions from New Times that sought to corroborate or verify the claims in the letter.

In response to specific questions from New Times, Nicole Capone, a spokesperson for the Corporation Commission, said the commission had no comment, because it has yet to look into the complaint.

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