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Loose Lips Sink Ships: Beneath the Surface of Hornblower Cruises, Allegations of Racism and Intimidation Threaten Its Public Image 

Wednesday, May 14 2014
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For the thousands of tourists who streamed past his podium in front of Pier 33, Ayo Jiboku considered himself an ambassador.

The broadly smiling face under the security cap could greet visitors in one of the four languages he spoke, welcoming them as they arrived to tour Alcatraz. Jiboku's energetic disposition made him popular with fellow employees and the hundreds of tourists who filled out cards praising him.

Jiboku spent four and a half years working security for Alcatraz Cruises — a subsidiary of Hornblower Cruises and Events Inc. — the company that ferries tourists back and forth to the infamous prison. By all measures, he was an exceptional employee. He was twice awarded employee of the quarter. In 2013, he won the top prize for customer service throughout the entire Hornblower international operation and was awarded a cash prize and a free cruise.

"[Jiboku] was an incredible employee, he was always happy, the customers loved him. He speaks fluent Japanese and traveled all over the world. He made me feel happy. I think even senior officials praised Ayoe all the time," says Edgar Segura, a current employee of Alcatraz Cruises.

Indeed they did. And they had good reason to.

Jiboku once bought new vests for security with his own money so they'd look more professional. He submitted letters with safety recommendations — sign and stanchion placement, arrowed mats in different colors for tourists to follow, precautions with checking large bags, and dozens more. His experience as the first person visitors encountered was reflected in a document he submitted to management: "Appropriate answers to the 100 most frequently asked questions at the curb."

He shaped his security job into a dual role of ambassador and safety expert. He liked the idea of being a cop of sorts, but one who naturally spread goodwill. More than anything, he wanted to grow within the company. After a lifetime of travels, he hoped this would be a permanent spot.

But Jiboku, pictured smiling in dozens of personal photos with the likes of Cate Blanchett, San Francisco Giants Manager Bruce Bochy, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, masked a growing sense of turmoil because of a work environment that ground him to a nub.

He says he was subjected to discrimination by employees who later earned promotions. He claims he was alternately praised and chastised for his efforts to improve employee relations, security, and morale, while being ignored when he reported serious threats to employee and tourist safety. Finally, Jiboku alleges, he was subjected to widespread, systematic intimidation and alienation from managers who came to label him an instigator.

But he wasn't the only one. At least five legal complaints by former and current employees — including a lawsuit in New York against Statue Cruises, another subsidiary of Hornblower — have been filed against Hornblower Cruises and Events, Inc., alleging racial discrimination, indiscriminate hiring and firing practices, and intimidation of employees.

Another ex-employee, a former security manager who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution, says the issues extend far beyond Jiboku.

"One of the reasons I quit Alcatraz Cruises is because of their ageist, sexist, racist, and just unfair treatment of so many people," he says. "Lies, deception, and playing favorites are their normal operating procedures."

Hornblower CEO Terry MacRae and a partner bought a small charter yacht company in 1980 and named it Hornblower Cruises and Events, LLC. In the three decades since, Hornblower has grown in resources, stature, and influence, earning him numerous accolades. The San Francisco Business Times named MacRae its Most Admired CEO of the Year in 2008.

Hornblower operates out of eight different ports: seven in California and one in New York. A ninth is set to open in the high-profile port of Niagara Falls, N.Y., where the company is making a $20 million investment, according to published reports.

Hornblower was awarded a 10-year contract to ferry visitors to Alcatraz in 2006. It shifted its operations to a beautiful waiting area on Pier 33, near its corporate offices. One of the city's most famous tourist destinations grew in popularity.

Hornblower is a recognized environmental leader. It invested millions in hybrid catamarans that conserve fuel and emissions. The Hornblower Hybrid won Most Significant Boat of 2012 from Workboat magazine. The San Francisco Business Times named Alcatraz Cruises its Green Business of the Year in 2008.

No small part of the company's growth success is the public image it carefully crafts, which helps it win competitive contracts with the likes of the National Parks Service. In addition to the Alcatraz contract, NPS awarded Hornblower the contract for transportation to the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 2008.

But Jiboku — in comments mirrored by current and former employees — says the company's success does not translate to its employees. What did translate was paranoia about bad press, he says, which included orders to confront tourists with large cameras to see if they were members of the media, and, at one point, ordering security to ignore a dead body that washed up to the pier in front of hundreds of tourists.

The company also ignored systemic mistreatment by its managers, according to legal filings. The subtext was clear: Bad press could cost the company its prized contracts, which would cost the employees their jobs, according to a former marine operations employee who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution.

This notion seems outlandish to spokesperson Denise Rasmussen, who stresses that Alcatraz Cruises has low turnover rates and the highest ranking by employees among all Hornblower subsidiaries based on confidential, electronic annual reviews.

"At Alcatraz Cruises, we have generally extremely good relationships with all our employees. We have an open door policy ... to make sure we have productive and good relationships," she says.

She noted the company's excellent reputation in the community and the success it has had since being awarded the contract in 2006 to ferry people to the state's most notorious prison.

"We can't really convey that [success] unless everyone at work is sharing in that experience. We try to make this a fun and prideful place to work," Rasmussen says.

She says the company has earned the highest evaluations from the National Park Service since taking over the ferry operation, a fact confirmed by NPS spokesperson Alexandra Picavet. But Picavet says the highest ranking the NPS gives is "satisfactory," and that it doesn't get into evaluating the day-to-day operations of its providers. For that reason, says former Executive Chef Marja McCune, the NPS isn't getting the true story.

McCune says that within the company, every manager knew "the song and dance" whenever NPS representatives were around. "If NPS knew half of what was going on, they'd be upset," she says.

But the former security manager disagrees, saying it would take "a monumental occurrence" for NPS not to renew the contract. He says Alcatraz's growing attendance and the company's attention to customer satisfaction usually ranked in the upper 90th percentile — the most significant factors for the NPS. He insists the parks service is well aware of management's mistreatment of employees, especially Jiboku.

"All you need to know about the National Parks [Service] is that they know all about it and they haven't done a thing," he says.

Jiboku is the son of immigrants, born in the United States, who has lived on three different continents. He has been on his own since he was 17. He is not easily intimidated.

"My first foray in college ... was quickly cut short when Moslem fanatics invaded the university, burning down my department at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Kaduna State in Nigeria," he says. "They killed 22 students on campus — and about a hundred 'nonbelievers' outside campus. I escaped that in the back of a vegetable truck."

He was hired by Alcatraz Cruises in 2009. Within nine months, he began seeking opportunities for advancement. He hoped to follow in the footsteps of Scott Thornton, who in a 28-year-career worked up from bartender to captain to his current post as vice-president and general manager. Jiboku viewed Thornton as a mentor. Thornton even offered to create a new supervisor of security position specifically for him. (Thornton did not return requests for an interview left on his cellphone.)

The downward spiral began in 2010, when he began finding notes on the podium he used to greet tourists. They read, "nigger, go back to Africa" and "We hate you nigger." It took several months, but eventually a fellow security employee admitted that he wrote one of the notes, claiming it was just lyrics to rap music, according to a 2011 letter Thornton wrote to Jiboku following an investigation.

"Steps have been taken to avoid this in the future," Thornton wrote.

That employee continued to harass Jiboku, which Jiboku noted to Thornton in a series of texts throughout his tenure at Alcatraz Cruises.

In one incident, the employee allegedly said to several employees while standing a few feet from Jiboku, "Do you know what the problem with America is? All these niggers."

The company resolved the matter, Jiboku alleges, by transferring the employee to another department, where he received a significant raise. The employee still works for Alcatraz Cruises.

But the racial taunts did not end.

When Jiboku texted a Christmas greeting to numerous employees, including one of Jiboku's supervisors, Doug Linares, Linares responded with one of his own. The text pictured a child with Down Syndrome, with his thumbs pointed down to a shirt that read, "At least I am not a dumb nigger."

Jiboku was stunned. He issued a formal complaint to Human Resources about the text. But he says Human Resources Director Anne Levine told him nothing could be done, and, in fact, that it was half his fault for allowing Linares to have his contact information.

Thornton's investigation confirmed the accuracy of Jiboku's complaint.

"Even though the [text] and photos you received were on personal time and personal technology, we agree they were inappropriate," Thornton wrote. "In addition to the content, what made them problematic is they were sent by a supervisor... We've taken steps to ensure this will never happen again."

Linares was promoted twice during the time Jiboku worked for Alcatraz Cruises. When contacted for comment, Linares said he had to get permission from his boss and "I'll definitely get back to you tomorrow."

He never did.

But the former security manager familiar with the situation verified the accuracy of Jiboku's claims.

"All you need to know about Alcatraz Cruises is that a manager sent an employee a photo of a Down Syndrome kid with a caption saying 'At least I'm not an N-word', and nothing happened to him. Not a thing," he says.

In response to Thornton's letter, Jiboku sent a seven-page complaint to management in September 2012 detailing the discriminatory actions that were tolerated by management. He never received a response, he says.

But Jiboku noticed a change, starting with a feeling of being ostracized by employees under Linares and tension with his own direct manager.

Another former employee, Toneah Dolo, says he saw first-hand the pressure brought to bear on Jiboku by Linares.

"There was a brief moment where people didn't go up to him and didn't talk to him," Dolo says. "I believe it came from management. Most definitely people were completely avoiding him because they felt like he was starting trouble."

Dolo had his own run-ins with Linares at this time.

"It was one of the first workplaces I worked where racist jokes were flying around like crazy," he says. Employees and managers would call he and Jiboku by each other's names and think it was hilarious, he says.

Dolo says he was on the job less than three months when Linares greeted by saying, "Wassap my nigger?!"

Word of the incident circled back to Human Resources Director Levine. Perhaps still smarting from the Linares text to Jiboku, in 2012 she took a different tact with Dolo, who was given a $2 raise despite a pay freeze. Dolo says Levine told him expressly not to tell anyone.

"They never let Doug [Linares] go or had him apologize or anything," Dolo says. "I knew what it was and I took the raise, I mean yeah. I took it."

He says when he didn't play along with management, they began to criticize his demeanor, saying he acted "hard" and asking if he "grew up in the hood." He was fired for tardiness after having few previous problems with management.

In 2012, Jiboku also took exception when his supervisor noted his sensitivities about racial issues under the "areas needing improvement" section of his evaluation.

He complained to Thornton, who assured him he'd have it removed. A few weeks later, Jiboku reminded Thornton in a text, who said again it would be changed. Eventually, Jiboku was given a new evaluation that replaced all the comments with a single line saying he needed to be sure to take his 10-minute break.

Jiboku says this is how it had been from the beginning. After he voiced his initial complaints about racism at Alcatraz Cruises, he claims he was threatened by Human Resources Director Levine.

"She told me I can be your friend or your enemy. I can make life for you here very unpleasant," he alleges. The former security manager who spoke with SF Weekly later admitted to Jiboku that he had been directed to treat him badly.

After four and a half years in what he deemed a hostile work environment, and having never been promoted, Jiboku says he lost hope. He was having trouble sleeping. His blood pressure rose. He quit in October.

"He's such an awesome guy," says Ryan DeVega, who worked for Hornblower for three years. "Kind and respected everyone. Was always happy and approachable. Ayo was respected by his peers, everyone liked him. I was shocked when I heard the news he left."

But he did not go away entirely. The man who made his living noticing everything as a security guard and loss-prevention specialist turned his copious notes, saved texts, and documented abuses collected over the length of his employment into a determined effort to bring the company's management abuses to light.

In late 2013, he posted a petition asking the National Parks Service to investigate Hornblower's operations. The petition collected more than 1,000 signatures.

In early 2014, he filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which agreed to take on his case. He also filed for unemployment benefits. At first, the investigating officer said that since he had quit he had no basis for a claim. But after reviewing Jiboku's allegations of racial discrimination and labor violations, the investigator sided with him, awarding him compensation.

Alcatraz Cruises spokesperson Rasmussen says she can't comment on Jiboku's complaint because of pending litigation. She says she is aware of Jiboku's online petition but would not comment as to its veracity.

After Jiboku resigned, he received a text from the security manager instructed to treat him badly. "I want to apologize," he wrote. "Following orders is no excuse."

Across the country, in New Jersey, a lawsuit filed by deckhand Howard Flecker III against CEO Terry MacRae and Statue Cruises, LLC — like Alcatraz Cruises, a subsidiary of Hornblower — claims that after he complained about the company's failure to pay overtime, he was threatened and ostracized by management. Flecker's experiences, as documented in legal papers, mirror Jiboku's. (The two have never met.)

After Flecker filed the complaint, a Statue executive sent an email to the staff naming Flecker and telling employees they couldn't work extra hours until the lawsuit was resolved.

"For those of you who will lose a day's pay (or more) every week, I leave it to your good judgment [if]... this lawsuit was in your best interests," the email read.

The court records say Flecker's co-workers confronted him, blaming him for Statue Cruises cutting overtime. Citing emotional stress and physical illness, Flecker eventually resigned.

In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, lawyers for the company said it did not retaliate against Flecker or take it out on the employees with reduced hours. But in 2012, an appeals court ruled otherwise. The court also discovered that certain employees, including two who had been harassing Flecker, did not have their hours reduced following his complaint.

In San Francisco, former employee-of-the-year Vincent Atos had also been involved in a high-profile lawsuit — against Alcatraz Cruises — in 2009. "They are very intimidating," he says. "Everybody knew to be quiet or they could lose their job."

Atos says he was fired the week after he began openly advocating for the employees to unionize. Alcatraz said it was for sexual harassment of another employee. Atos lost a lawsuit seeking back wages and the return of his job, but garnered support from the Harvey Milk Democratic Club and the city's Democratic County Central Committee. He says the company, which gives preferential hiring to family and friends of management, uses those loyal connections to filter information from management to the rank-and-file.

"People who work there are friends and family, so through them it goes down to everybody," he says.

Meanwhile, Segura still operates the concession stands on the ships. He says he also noticed the intimidation at various times, but never so clearly as after Jiboku filed his online petition. He was warned by his manager that other managers were talking about him, he says, because he signed the petition with his own name.

"It's in your face and blunt," he says about the air of intimidation.

Others say they too felt the intimidation increase whenever bad press loomed.

Segura still goes to work each day afraid of retaliation. He claims the company tried to forge a write-up, saying he had been late. The faked document had false times on it and hadn't been signed by Segura or his supervisor. Once the mistake was recognized, his manager asked for it back. Segura refused, keeping both copies as proof.

"She told me that the company had lost the previous documents," Segura says. "She told me it was something suspicious going on there. I am feeling harassed. I have to smile and pretend that it's okay, but I think to myself, 'I know you guys are trying to fire me.'"

Segura says the intimidation stems from more than just his support of Jiboku.

Segura had transitioned from seasonal to full-time work but had never been offered the medical benefits afforded him. When he finally asked about it, he says Levine and his manager gave him conflicting stories.

"I was shocked by the hostility," he says.

The company did not respond to a request to interview Levine.

When nothing was done, Segura took his complaint to the San Francisco Office of Labor Standards and Enforcement.

On Jan. 16, 2014, Segura received a letter and a check for $1,417.08 from Alcatraz Cruises regarding his complaint to OLSE. The letter said that OLSE concluded Alcatraz Cruises had violated his right to medical benefits under the Healthcare Security Ordinance of San Francisco. Alcatraz Cruises had to pay more than two dozen affected employees a total amount greater than $100,000.

Richard Waller, supervising compliance officer for the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, confirms the company received a complaint in 2013. That same employee, he writes in an email, contacted the OLSE "alleging racial discrimination. Because the OLSE does not investigate allegations of racial discrimination, we suggested that employee contact the City's Human Rights Commission."

Rasmussen denies the company has any problems with discrimination.

She points to documents the company provided for federal affirmative action reports in 2013 in defense of its hiring practices. Alcatraz Cruises exceeds the required categories in nearly every level of employment. The documents show that more than a third of its mid-level managers are women and nearly 20 percent are minorities, though none of the four senior-level managers are minorities.

Minorities in management rarely include blacks, according to Jiboku and former Executive Chef McCune, who says in the eight years she worked for Alcatraz Cruises, she and current manager Anita King were the only two blacks hired into management roles.

McCune was fired over a conflict with her former manager, who also has since left the company. But McCune took her case to the unemployment board in 2012, which initially ruled against her claim, but later reversed the decision and awarded McCune benefits.

Alcatraz Cruises maintains that it has employees sign a strict anti-harassment policy, and that there is no discrimination within the company. Jiboku disagrees. In his September 2011 letter to management, Jiboku documented a pattern of firing blacks for minor offenses. One of those cases involved Lester Hawley in 2012. Hawley interviewed for the job with long braids. He was hired and worked in security for three months without complaint.

But without notice, he was called into Levine's office and told he had two weeks to cut his hair or he would be terminated. Hawley says he only had about three months left on his seasonal employment and desperately wanted to keep his braids. He had the braids when he interviewed and when they hired him, he reminded them. Management gave him no choice, he alleges. He cut off his braids.

"I needed a job at the time, so I was willing to be compliant," he says.

But management fired him just a few weeks after he cut his hair anyway, for having a bad attitude, he says.

The discriminatory disregard, according to Jiboku, meant overlooking potentially dangerous situations. He says a security employee told him in 2013 that he might someday shoot up the landing at Pier 33.

"He came up to me and said that if he ever came to work and said 'Leave the job' that it means something was about to happen. I asked what he meant and he said, 'I might just start cutting loose with an AK-47,'" Jiboku says.

Jiboku told Linares about two separate incidents where threats were made by the employee — the second in front of a parks employee. Linares said he'd keep an eye on it. The employee, Jiboku alleges, was never disciplined.

Despite the troubles he says he faced, Jiboku thought Thornton would promote him. He could then work to change the environment from within.

Jiboku has worked in security for 15 years: five in loss prevention, five in high-end hotel security, and five more in management. Thornton routinely relied on Jiboku for security work at other sites. Yet time and again — seven different positions came available within the department in the four and a half years he worked at Hornblower — Jiboku was passed over.

What finally pushed Jiboku to his breaking point was being deceived by Thornton, the one ally he thought he had within the company.

Thornton had in texts and personal meetings dangled a carrot that he would separate security from guest services and promote Jiboku to a security management post created expressly for him.

Indeed, the two communicated more than once about the promotion. As late as May 2013, Jiboku texted Thornton for an update on the position.

"It would be refreshing and rewarding for you to take advantage of my experience... to increase our effectiveness and productivity," Jiboku texted.

Thornton replied, texting, "You're the man. I appreciate the words and will work to formalize the position."

In July 2013, after three years of documented racial taunts and repeatedly being passed over for promotions, Jiboku and Thornton exchanged a telling series of text messages.

"I'm expending too much energy deflecting a ton of undeserved racial insults, injustices, threats and hostility (yes, still ongoing) while constantly maintaining a calm composure and happy-go-professional demeanor," Jiboku texted.

"I didn't realize we were still dealing with the stuff you mentioned — all of which I take very seriously, as I hope you know," Thornton texted back.

"I probably should've just quietly resigned and moved on... I'm a big boy and I totally understand the kind of society in which I live. It's life... I can handle myself... sorry for bothering you. I know you've been straight with me," Jiboku wrote.

"It's not a bother — if that shit is going on — I need to put a stop to it. I can't change the world but I can sure as hell change Alcatraz Cruises," Thornton replied.

But nothing was done to resolve the ongoing racial taunts, Jiboku says. Then Jiboku claims Rasmussen inadvertently let it slip that Thornton never had any plans of promoting Jiboku.

"Her exact words were, 'It was determined last year that the responsibilities of such a position didn't merit a salaried position,'" Jiboku says.

Rasmussen says she couldn't comment on whether there were any plans to promote Jiboku.

Jiboku still isn't over the sense of betrayal from a manager who had showered him with praise.

"His favorite statements were always, 'You have a special set of skills that we have to determine how to best utilize. You are by far the most qualified of all the guys in your department,'" Jiboku says.

The former security manager who asked to remain anonymous says he was so impressed with Jiboku that he'd testify in a lawsuit on his behalf, but he wouldn't jeopardize his career for an article that he doesn't believe will change anything. He made it a point to tell Jiboku how much he respected him when he heard that Jiboku had resigned.

"In my experience, you got more positive comments from guests, both verbally and in writing, than any other employee in the company. You were an excellent employee. Your work ethic and your experience should have earned you more recognition and advancement opportunities," he texted.

Jiboku recently returned to Pier 33 to take a tour of the island. He was greeted with hugs by more than a dozen employees who went out of their way to talk to him. Seeing everything through his security-trained eyes, he told this reporter that the corporate offices were being notified about his arrival. Within minutes, Rasmussen appeared, standing by the ticket booth to watch the landing area of Pier 33. Jiboku looked on from the boat, readying to depart for the island.

Later, the captain invited him to steer the boat. Jiboku laughed, saying he had never done this the whole time he worked there. He clearly still missed the people, the job, his coveted role as goodwill ambassador.

Jiboku has since applied to a few security jobs, but feels it may be time to again move on. He says he plans to move back to Japan in the hope of finding a job. Before he leaves, he says, he wants to see this through. Asked what that means, he stares out onto San Francisco Bay.

"So many people feel crushed by this company, not just me," he says. "I just want a serious evaluation done. I want this to change.

"None of this had to happen," he says, looking out at the water, his eyes tightening to hold back the emotions. "I just wanted to make a difference."

About The Author

Andrew Scot Bolsinger

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