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  • Writer's pictureBobbi K Dominick

Race Discrimination in the Workplace?

With the focus the last few months on issues of race bias in policing, this is a good time to remind organizations that we still see issues of race and national origin discrimination and harassment popping up in the workplace, and some organizations do not take appropriate steps to recognize, address and correct these issues. We are seeing instances of overt comments and actions directed towards not only those who are Black (some prefer African American, but not all those with black skin tones may associate their identity with African heritage), but also Hispanic (some prefer the term Latino or Latinx) or Asian (particularly with the pandemic virus originating from China and subsequent focus of anger on those who are of Asian descent.)

Here are just a few examples of recent verdicts or settlements involving race discrimination, to provide in concrete terms the types of behavior we are continuing to see in the workplace.

· In August of 2020 a San Jose-based electrical subcontractor at the Apple Park construc­tion project, Air Systems Inc. (ASI), agreed to pay $1,250,000 to eight African American former employees and provide other relief to settle a racial harassment lawsuit filed by the EEOC. Allegations included racist graffiti of swastikas and racial epithets drawn on the walls of the portable toilets at the project, as well as a noose at the worksite hung next to a scrawled note containing other expletives, and a threat of lynching. In addition, the company failed to act when notified by two African American employees that a white coworker had taunted them with racial pejoratives.

  • In Sept 2019 A woman and her husband, both employees of the Michigan correctional system, were awarded $11.4 million by a jury on their claims of race discrimination, hostile work environment and retaliation, according to court documents obtained by HR Dive. They said they endured racist slurs and that co-workers watched and showed her racist videos.

  • In August 2020 a jury verdict in Mississippi found that a school district employee was being discriminated against because he was denied the principal(ship) of a school which is traditionally a mostly white school, and they put him over an African American school.

  • In November 2019, Dollar General was found to be using criminal background checks to bar employment which had a disparate impact upon people of color. They settled a class action suit for $6 million.

  • A September 2019 suit alleged Ring Power hired a naval military veteran as the only black technician in the department, and he was subjected to racially-motivated treatment throughout his employment including being denied training, work, and overtime opportunities. Despite his training and skills as an electrical technician, his supervisor used racial expletives to make the point that black employees were only good for cleaning and sweeping.

  • In December 2019 DSW Shoe Warehouse settled a claim for race discrimination where the employee alleged that she was told there were “too many black people” working at her store and she needed to engage in hiring practices that would limit the number of blacks hired. She also alleged that she was disciplined and terminated for alleged behavior similar to the behavior of other employees who were not persons of color, and who were not disciplined. She was replaced with a white employee.

  • In June 2020 a temp employment agency settled an EEOC claim for $568,500 including allegations that the company refused to send black and female workers on assignments either because customers requested a white worker, or a male worker, or because of the temp agency perception that white or male workers would be preferred. Three similar lawsuits were also settled with temp agencies.

  • According to a 2020 EEOC suit, a company fired several black employees in August 2012 after taking over management responsibility of a Fort Myers hotel. A CEO allegedly told employees to terminate all of the housekeepers - all but one of whom were black - because he did not work with "those kind of people." The CEO also asked another employee about her race and, upon learning that she was black, fired her as well. The only black front desk attendant, was also terminated, while other non-black front desk workers were allowed to continue their employment.

  • In June 2020 the EEOC sued CCC Group alleging white supervisors and employees regularly made unwelcome racist comments, used racial slurs, threatened black employees with nooses, and subjected African American employees to harsher working conditions than white co-workers. The EEOC charges that white employees frequently referred to black employees with insulting racial epithets. Some of this harassment allegedly occurred on a company radio channel for all to hear. White employees bragged that their ancestors had owned slaves and told a black employee he walked funny because slaves used to walk with a bag on their shoulder picking cotton. Further, one white supervisor attempted to snare an employee with a noose, the EEOC said. Another Caucasian supervisor told an African American employee that for Halloween, “You don’t even have to dress up. I will dress in white and put a noose around your neck and we’ll walk down the street together.” The EEOC further charges that African American employees were given more physically taxing and dangerous work than Caucasian counterparts, including being assigned outdoor work in winter while white colleagues worked inside.

  • In May 2020 the EEOC sued when a pipefitter foreman was assigned to oversee a crew of pipe workers, and a white subordinate made abusive and racially derogatory comments to the pipefitter foreman and engaged in insubordinate behavior. The organization fired the pipefitter foreman following the incident.

  • In March 2020 Smashburger was sued, alleging that it subjected a black employee at one of its Long Island restaurants to a race-based hostile work environment when the restaurant's general manager made constant racist and demeaning comments. She frequently made racist comments about the employee to his fiancée who also worked at the restaurant, suggesting that she should break up with him because he is black. The harassment was reported on multiple occasions to management, but Smashburger waited nearly a year before conducting a serious investigation, and then only took remedial action after the employee filed a charge with the EEOC.

  • In March 2020 a lawsuit alleged that three African American men endured the store owner's daily use of racial slurs. The owner slapped Bussey and also prominently displayed racially offensive posters of monkeys in the workplace to humiliate the black employees. The harassing behavior continued despite numerous complaints by all three employees. The employees were subsequently fired by GNT Foods in retaliation after filing EEOC complaints.

  • In March 2020, companies agreed to pay $250,000 to settle a race harassment case brought by the EEOC. According to the EEOC's lawsuit, Prewett and Desoto supervisors and managers subjected African American employees to daily harassment and humiliation because of their race by calling them racially offensive and derogatory names. The lawsuit further alleged that Prewett and Desoto assigned black employees the more dangerous job duties.

  • In February 2020 another company paid $25000 to settle an EEOC complaint . Employees allegedly verbally harassed another employee based on his race by calling him racial slurs and making offensive comments about black people in his presence. Ultimately, the employee discovered a noose hanging in the warehouse. Two coworkers pulled him toward the noose, telling him to put his head in it. The warehouse manager saw the noose and laughed.

  • In November 2019, On the Border paid $100,000 to settle a race discrimination suit According to EEOC's lawsuit, OTB failed to take action when several employees at its Holtsville, New York location subjected an African-American cook to harassment based on his race, including repeatedly calling him racial slurs.

It is interesting to note, as well, that in FY 2019 there were 23,976 charges of racial discrimination filed with the EEOC, which was 33% of all charges filed. Charges of this type were higher than those claiming sex discrimination.

What to do?

If you are a regular reader of this blog, these snippets should encourage you to redouble efforts to prevent and correct discrimination or harassment happening in your workplaces.

  • Training: Too often, organizations focus upon preventive training that only addressed sex discrimination. Training MUST include all types of discrimination, but especially issues of race and national origin discrimination, and include a focus upon bias and implicit bias.

  • Policies and Statements: Policies also often focus solely upon preventing sexual harassment. Policies must more clearly address that behavior like that described above is inappropriate and grounds for discipline. Statements from organizational leaders supporting efforts at racial equity are also helpful.

  • Training Supervisors: Supervisors must be trained to immediately report any hint of conduct that might be derogatory towards race or national origin. These organizations often got in trouble because someone in leadership knew the behavior was happening, but nothing was done. the behavior must be reported immediately, investigated, and then corrective action taken to try to prevent the behavior from continuing, and send a message to all employees that the behavior will not be tolerated.

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