Job Police or Not, the EEOC Is Busy With Discrimination

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 27, 2006

So they say -- some of them, anyway -- that discrimination is not a problem in America anymore? Don't tell that to the tens of thousands of people who filed complaints last year with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In 75,428 filings at EEOC field offices across the country, people described unfair and illegal treatment in private sector workplaces on the basis of race, sex, age, disability, religion and other factors.

Nearly 63 percent of all complaints alleged discrimination based on race or sex, or that the person filing the complaint had been retaliated against for speaking out against such behavior. Charges of sexual harassment were included in those complaints.

The EEOC, the federal agency in charge of enforcing federal civil rights laws, filed 383 lawsuits against alleged offenders last year, garnering $107.7 million for victims through litigation. The agency, which marked its 40th anniversary last summer, helped obtain $271.6 million for victims without going to trial, often through settlements or mediation.

"Litigation is a last resort," said David Grinberg, an EEOC spokesman.

Discrimination charges declined slightly last year, falling 5 percent from the 79,432 filed in 2004. The numbers have fluctuated over the last decade but have never approached the 91,189 charges filed in 1994.

Cari M. Dominguez, the commission's chairwoman, attributed the recent three-year skid, in part, to more aggressive efforts to promote voluntary compliance by providing training about the laws to employers.

"It is clear that the commission can no longer serve solely as the 'job police,' " Dominguez said in a written statement. "We are striving to build partnerships to prevent discrimination, while taking on more high-impact cases that can lead to positive workplace changes for a broad swath of the workforce."

Still, discriminatory behavior abounds. Consider some EEOC cases this month:

· On March 10, a U.S. District Court jury in Tallahassee ordered Associated Security Enforcement Inc. to pay $1.34 million for sexual harassment of four female employees by one of the security company's owners. The owner groped women's breasts, asked for sex in exchange for money, made frequent requests for oral sex and invited women to stay with him overnight, the EEOC said.

· Also on March 10, a U.S. district judge in Chicago approved a consent decree that requires Cracker Barrel restaurants to pay $2 million to 51 current and former employees of three of the chain's restaurants in Illinois. Several female employees testified that they had been victims of unwelcome sexual comments and touching from managers and other employees. Black workers said they had been required to wait on black customers when white employees refused to serve them, had been assigned to work in smoking sections and had been the targets of racially charged language such as "spear-chucking porch monkey."

· On March 16, the former Melrose New York hotel and its Philadelphia-based management company, Berwind Property Group Ltd., agreed to pay $800,000 to settle discrimination claims by Hispanic employees. The hotel had been charged with creating a hostile work environment by requiring employees to speak only English at all times, including during their breaks; with improperly firing Hispanic employees; and with retaliating against employees who complained about the discrimination.

· On March 2, a U.S. District Court jury in Baltimore ordered FedEx Kinko's to pay $108,000 for failing to accommodate a deaf employee with sign language interpreters, a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. Ronald Lockhart, the employee, worked as a package handler for the company in Baltimore.

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