All Hands: Alcatraz Cruises Goes Radio Silent on Allegations of Discrimination

Last month, as Hornblower Events and Cruises CEO Terry MacRae launched a new tour operation in Niagara Falls, problems with management back in San Francisco rippled through the workplace following an SF Weekly investigation that chronicled an alleged culture of discrimination and intimidation within the ranks.

On May 14, the day the story came out, MacRae joined with Scott Thornton, general manager of Alcatraz Cruises (a subsidiary of Hornblower) and other corporate leaders in Niagara Falls for the grand opening, which included a maiden voyage with local reporters.

“We are thrilled to be finally open after all these months and months of preparation… our team is ready for it and it's going to be some kind of fun to get this thing rolling,” MacRae said during the ride with local dignitaries.

But things were not any kind of fun for Hornblower the week before. On May 9, a New Jersey jury awarded $560,000 to a former employee of Hornblower subsidiary Statue Cruises, Howard Flecker III, who quit after being intimidated and ostracized by a Hornblower vice president for insisting the company correctly pay for overtime, according to published reports.

In San Francisco, Alcatraz Cruises sought to polish its image while cutting off further communication with the media, including a company memo to managers that threatened “disciplinary action” to anyone who spoke to the media in the wake of the SF Weekly story. MacRae also issued an email to employees of Alcatraz Cruises, saying only that the company disagreed with “recent accusations.”

“Hornblower condemns all forms of bigotry and prejudice. As a company, we don't condone it and as individuals, we abhor it. Such attitudes are not welcome at Hornblower or any of our companies: on, below, or between decks. While we are not allowed to comment on a matter of ongoing litigation, we certainly strongly disagree with recent accusations,” MacRae wrote.

Neither Thorton nor Alcatraz Cruises spokesperson Denise Rasmussen responded to requests to be interviewed, including an offer to point out what exactly the company disagreed with.

But employees past and current reached out in the days that followed with stories of their own that mirrored those detailed in at least half a dozen legal actions against Hornblower in the past few years.

“It is worse [here],” a current employee of Hornblower's Newport Beach operations says. “Lots of old friends that gave themselves salaried jobs and pawn off all the work on hourly employees. It's like a secret brotherhood of people that don't want to work, but get paid.”

A veteran employee of Hornblower Cruises says he has seen too many long-time employees fired without cause after raising concerns.

“I have a fear of losing my job,” he says. “I've worked with this company for over 20 years and I know too well what they are capable of.”

Sarah Lovett, a former manager from the Hornblower's reservation department at Pier 3 in San Francisco, says she identified with the struggles of employees like Ayo Jiboku, who says he quit in frustration as the stress of working in a hostile environment took its toll.

“The allegations hit so close to home I felt I need to reach out,” she writes.

Lovett says she was rapidly promoted into management and expected to move into the corporate structure. But it all changed when she went to human resources to clarify holiday pay benefits.

“My boss began to ostracize me,” she says. “It was clear I was being punished for talking to my HR department.”

After several attempts to resolve the matter, Lovett chose to leave Hornblower.

“The stress from the abuse that I received was immense and I decided to leave my job because of it. I am not the only person who has been the recipient of this abuse. … This is only the tip of the iceberg,” she says.

In the days following the story came the removal of one of the managers, Doug Linares. It could not be confirmed if Linares was fired, relocated, or resigned, but three current employees noted he no longer worked at the Pier 33 location where tourists arrive to board the ferry to Alcatraz.

Linares had been promoted twice after former security employee Jiboku reported to human resources and Thornton that at the end of 2010 Linares had sent him an unprovoked text picturing a child with Down Syndrome with his thumbs pointed down to a shirt that read, “At least I am not a dumb nigger.”

When asked if he was being made the scapegoat for the numerous problems documented in the SF Weekly story, Linares declined to be interviewed. “Honestly, I would just like to move past all of this,” Linares says.

Meanwhile, two current employees noted the presence of two new black managers.

“I find it very interesting that an African American shows up to train on the vessels at Pier 3 a week after this article is released. Sounds like they're trying to prove they are model citizens,” one employee says, who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation. Both positions were overstaffed before the promotions were made, a second employee says.

Inquiries to Alcatraz managers to confirm the promotions were not returned.

For his part, Jiboku is not impressed with Hornblower management's response to the story, including the removal of Linares. “All the company is concerned about is the maintenance of its carefully crafted public image,” he says.

That image is important in maintaining the company's contracts with the National Parks Service. Since the SF Weekly story came out, the NPS, which granted Hornblower the contract to ferry tourists to the prison in 2006, has been in follow-up conversations with the management of Alcatraz Cruises. NPS spokesperson Alexandra Picavet would not elaborate on these conversations other than to say the company provided significant documentation of its policies and compliance with the terms of its contract.

But Jiboku wants to see the NPS conduct its own investigation. He launched a petition to that effect, which garnered more than 1,000 signatures in support. Calls for the NPS to investigate employee/management relationships exceed its responsibilities and capability, Picavet says.

“We evaluate on customer service and how they fulfill the duties put forth in the contract,” she says. “When it comes to employee issues, not wanting to duplicate government services and not being the experts, we don't want to dabble in their world. … The employment issues of a larger company are beyond what we can do well. We don't have the capacity or the subject matter expertise to duplicate what other government agencies do better.”

How these allegations may affect the 10-year Alcatraz contract going up for bid in 2016 remains to be seen. But, says Picavet, “The contract is its own entity. Each has its own set of parameters — visitor services, sustainability, compliance with laws including when it comes to hiring — all of which is considered,” Picavet says.

MacRae has used the San Francisco operations as an example of the company's positive impact in a March letter written to Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster.

“Hornblower's guest services and marketing capabilities are unparalleled in the industry. … The National Park Service wrote that Alcatraz Cruises 'excels operationally [and] visitor service is conducted at very high levels,'” MacRae wrote.

Jiboku says the reaction to the story proves there is more to be done.

“I don't think I have changed the culture within the company,” he says. “I think I have attracted attention to it though. There remains the foundation of denial with management. Since the story came out, so did half-a-dozen employees, and another half-dozen ex-employees with similar stories.”

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