Grocer accused of bias against non-Hispanic

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued a Statesville Compare Foods grocery store for allegedly firing a worker because he's not Hispanic.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court Monday, highlights a growing concern: that employers are increasingly choosing Hispanic employees over others to cut costs or cater to Spanish-speaking customers, EEOC officials say.

The suit comes just months after a Compare Foods in Charlotte agreed to pay $40,000 to settle a similar case. The stores are independently owned.

The latest suit alleges that Robert Bruce, a non-Hispanic white meat cutter, was fired in 2006 and replaced by a less qualified Hispanic employee. The EEOC is asking for back pay and other damages for Bruce, as well as court orders to refrain from discrimination and institute policies and programs that provide equal employment opportunities for non-Hispanics, court documents say.

A store manager declined to comment Tuesday.

Compare Foods, which caters to Hispanic customers, opened its first store in 1989 in Freeport, N.Y. There are now more than 50 stores in seven states.

In January, the Compare Foods store on North Tryon Street agreed to a $40,000 settlement after the EEOC complained that it fired or forced out three longtime non-Hispanic employees – two black and one white – and replaced them with Hispanic workers.

An attorney for the store later 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.

Race-related discrimination cases are on the rise, partly because workplaces are becoming more diverse, and the tightening economy is leading to more layoffs and, as a result, more EEOC complaints, experts say.

Nationally, workers filed more than 30,500 race-related complaints last fiscal year, the highest in 15 years. The EEOC's Charlotte office, which covers Virginia and most of the Carolinas, received 841 allegations of racial discrimination in 2007, up from 710 the year before.

In addition, complaints of non-Hispanics being fired or passed over in favor of Hispanics have increased over the past two years, said Lynette Barnes, regional attorney for the EEOC's Charlotte district.

Part of the reason is that more Hispanics are entering the work force. In some cases, employers hire them because they think they can pay them under the table or at lower salaries than other workers, Barnes said.

In other cases, employers want to hire workers their customers might prefer, such as Hispanic workers in a store that serves Hispanics, which is illegal, she said.