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Bus operator fights Chicago Transit Authority transphobia

By staff

Russia T. Brown.

Chicago, IL – The Chicago Transit Authority fired trans bus operator and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 241 member Russia T. Brown for waging a struggle for his right to healthcare while refusing to address rampant transphobia that culminated in death threats.

Brown began his job at CTA in May 2016 at Chicago garage on the city's West Side. He was promoted to full time in under two years. However, when he began transitioning, verbal altercations about his gender identity became increasingly frequent. The “jokes” and verbal harassment onto social media platforms.

Brown spoke to CTA management about the harassment, but the CTA did nothing. Brown then went to the EEOC office to complain, but all they did was refer him back to ATU Local 241. The Chicago garage 241 shop steward was not helpful.

In the eyes of the CTA suits at 567 W. Lake, this all qualified Brown as a “troublemaker”. It's almost routine for CTA to fire workers for standing up for their rights, and Brown was no exception. Of course, the overpaid denizens in the law department aren't dumb enough to list that as the reason for his discharge, so they cooked up a cover story involving allegations of what they claimed was “FMLA falsification.”

Long shifts behind the wheel had caused Brown to experience back pain. When the pain was intolerable, he used time under FMLA (the Family and Medical Leave Act) for his shift and went to see a chiropractor as anyone would do. However, the business manager at 77th Street garage, saw an opportunity to “get” Brown by claiming his FMLA application had been denied. Business Manager De Jesus knew full well that this wasn't the case. Brown was referred to Reed Group, a third-party “healthcare provider” whose job it seems to be to give CTA the legal cover they to deny medical claims.

Reed Group said that Brown's FMLA approval was still pending. Brown said, “I called Keith” – referring to scandal-ridden 241 President Keith Hill – “about the situation, he told me to call [241 Vice President] Woodrow Eiland. Woodrow told me CTA was gonna try to fire me and the only person who could help me was Keith Hill because he 'has to talk to someone on his level.' I called Keith back but he didn’t answer so I went to the union office. All of this happened in one day. De Jesus and the second opinion doctor CTA sent me to told me they don’t see chiropractors as real doctors. It was strange because this chiropractor had already successfully completed my last FMLA claim paperwork with no issues.”

Rank-and-file workers in the Chicago Transit Justice Coalition are fighting to make the local a union the fights for members.

Both CTA and Reed Group were trying to claim that the chiropractic services didn't qualify as doctor's visits. Management kept telling Brown that he needed a third opinion despite not having received word on the second opinion. 241 President Hill again claimed there was nothing he could do. Then Brown received an email from CTA saying his FMLA was denied as he was waiting for his third opinion. CTA said they wanted to go with the second opinion but were unable to produce the paperwork, which they claimed had been “lost.” Since Brown couldn't get his third opinion and his FMLA was denied, all his absences were counted as unexcused, which opened the door for his discharge.

This occurred as Brown was continuing his transition, which was paid for by the Cigna insurance he received as a CTA worker. Cigna had agreed to cover his transition in 2018. Brown called Cigna repeatedly to confirm that his top surgery was covered by his insurance. Cigna then reversed itself and said they wouldn't cover his surgery despite the fact he had already found a surgeon.

Brown contacted the ACLU, who agreed to represent him. They sent a letter on his behalf to CTA saying it was unlawful for them to deny him coverage and threatened legal action. CTA wrote back and agreed to change its policy.

#ChicagoIL #Labor