OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A former BNSF worker who was named one of the railroad's employees of the year in 2021 for her work in supporting LGBTQ+ workers is now suing the railroad where she worked for 30 years, saying that after being promoted regularly earlier in her career she was denied advancement opportunities after her gender transition.
Randi Berghorst sued the Fort Worth, Texas-based railroad in federal court recently, arguing BNSF discriminated against her.
“I’m extremely disappointed that this is where it had to go,” she said.
BNSF declined to comment directly on Berghorst’s lawsuit, and it hasn’t yet responded formally in court. But railroad spokesperson Lena Kent defended BNSF’s hiring practices and said the railroad doesn’t discriminate against people based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Kent cited the PRIDE+ employee group that Berghorst helped form as evidence that BNSF “is committed to a diverse and inclusive workplace.”
“Once hired, our employees are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect; have equal access to tools, resources, training and development opportunities and have equal opportunity to achieve their full potential,” Kent said.
Berghorst still has the plaque the railroad gave her thanking her for “making a significant impact on BNSF's diversity and inclusion journey" hanging on her wall.
But around the same time she got that award, Berghorst said she was struggling to even get an interview for the more than a dozen jobs she applied for despite her impressive resume. That was in sharp contrast from earlier in her career when the 50-year-old was promoted regularly before her gender transition in 2018.
Berghorst said she had even previously held some of the jobs she was applying for and got positive reviews from her supervisors when she did them. Berghorst had worked her way up in the ranks to several different management jobs, but she decided to step away from a demanding roadmaster job in 2016 when she was struggling with mental health issues.
“I was going through quite a bit of stuff and getting ready for what would soon be my transition," she said.
Berghorst's lawyer Nick Thompson said it's not unusual for roadmasters to step down from those jobs that require people to be available all the time when they are dealing with personal issues, such as a divorce. But Thompson, whose Casey Jones law firm specializes in representing railroad workers, said he's never seen anyone else have issues returning to that job later because they stepped down.
Berghorst said human resources officials never seemed to have a good answer when she asked why she was being passed over. She said the representative she talked to never could point to any deficiencies in her resume.
According to Berghorst, one of the most troubling examples of being passed over for a job came when Berghorst applied for a training job after she had been known throughout her career for teaching other workers, and she already had more than eight years of managerial experience.
The job listing said she needed five years of management experience, but Berghorst said she couldn't get a good explanation about why she never got an interview. Then, a short time later, she said the job was reposted to require only three years of management experience, and BNSF went on to hire two men with much less experience than Berghorst for the job.
“They didn’t have any people besides me — or any people they wanted — that had over five years, so they had to lower the requirements so they could get somebody," Berghorst said.
That prompted Berghorst to start looking into filing a discrimination complaint against the railroad and eventually to apply for the Federal Railroad Administration job she holds now as an inspector based in the Illinois city of Woodstock, although she still maintains a home in the small Minnesota town of Luverne not far from the South Dakota border.
Deciding to leave BNSF in January was difficult.
“I made that decision after it seemed that things were going nowhere with BNSF," Berghorst said. "And I had my 30 years in, so I was locked into the railroad retirement.”
Berghorst is seeking damages in her lawsuit, but mostly she says she hopes her case will force BNSF to change. BNSF is owned by Warren Buffett's Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate, but Buffett maintains a hands-off approach to its subsidiaries and largely lets the railroad run itself.