Bias complaints mount for EEOC

A life-size hangman's noose in an employee's work area. Daily racial slurs. Applicants denied jobs because of ethnic-sounding names, and workers fired because of their race.

Those are some of the complaints the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has heard this year in Charlotte and across the country.

Race-related discrimination cases are rising, partly because of the tightening economy and increasingly diverse workplaces, EEOC officials and local attorneys said.

“It is the dominant issue in our inventory,” said Reuben Daniels Jr., director of the commission's Charlotte office. “We just have to keep addressing it.”

Nationally, workers filed more than 30,500 race-related complaints last fiscal year, the highest level in 15 years.

The Charlotte office received 841 allegations of racial discrimination in 2007, more than 44 percent of its total workload and up from 710 the year before.

In the latest local example, the EEOC sued an Indian Trail concrete company May 13, saying it fired its only black employees because of their race.

According to the complaint, Curb, Gutter & Sidewalk Inc. fired several workers in June 2006, citing a slowdown in business – but then hired people of other races to fill their jobs.

Company officials did not return phone calls this week.

In January, Compare Foods agreed to pay a $40,000 settlement after the EEOC complained that the grocery chain discriminated against three workers in its North Tryon Street store for being non-Hispanic.

The suit alleged that the employees, who were black and white, were fired or forced to resign and replaced with Hispanic workers.

Charlotte attorney Bryan Adams, who represented the store, said one of the employees voluntarily quit, while the others were fired for insubordination and complaints from customers about being rude – not because of their national origin.

“We vigorously rejected that allegation from the very beginning,” he said, adding that the parties settled before a court decision. “The evidence showed … there had been no discrimination.”

The EEOC statistics don't necessarily show that workplace discrimination is happening more often, as only a fraction of the complaints result in lawsuits or settlements, Adams said.

He blames other factors, such as the economy, for the increase.

“The last time the economy slowed, after the dot-com bubble burst, there was an increase in the number of charges,” Adams said. “Now, we're back in an economic cycle where things have slowed.”

As struggling businesses lay off employees, and as those workers find it more difficult to get new jobs, they are more likely to file complaints against their former employers, he said.

Still, the surge in complaints is real and spans more industries, from blue-collar jobs to high-level positions, said Daniels, the local EEOC director.

“We believe it's happening across the board,” he said. “It's unpredictable.”

This year, for example, a black health care executive claimed he was unfairly disciplined because of his race, Daniels said. The complaint was resolved before going to court for $90,000.

The type of discrimination being alleged is also harsher than in years past, sometimes involving nooses and verbal threats of lynching, he said.

The EEOC saw 7,000 racial harassment cases last fiscal year, up from 3,075 in 1991.

In January, Henredon Furniture Industries Inc. agreed to pay $465,000 in a settlement to seven black employees subjected to racial harassment at the company's High Point manufacturing plant, the EEOC said.

The complaint alleged that the workers dealt with daily racial slurs, name-calling and threats by nooses from 1998 through 2006.

To combat emerging race issues, the EEOC launched a national outreach, education and enforcement campaign last year.

Officials are also calling on employers to make sure their workers understand what constitutes racial discrimination – and to follow those guidelines themselves.

“I think it's important for the tone to be set from the top,” Daniels said. “You have to be very clear that there is no tolerance for race-related discrimination.”