The government yesterday announced settlement of a series of major discrimination suits against Sears Roebuck and Co., ending one phase of an eight-year conflict between the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the nation's largest retailer.
The settlement ends what had been considered the government's broadest race discrimination case against a major employer. The EEOC is still moving forward, however, with an equally broad suit, filed in Chicago, charging Sears with a nationwide pattern of sex discriminaton in hiring and promotion. No settlement talks are under way on that case, which is expected to go to trial in a year.
The EEOC began its controversial investigation of Sears' hiring practices in the Nixon administration. The agency formally accused Sears of discrimination in 1977, during the Carter years.The company responded in 1979 with a celebrated lawsuit, since thrown out of court, charging that the government itself was responsible for the make-up of Sears' work force.
Negotiations to settle the race part of the charges against Sears began last year, after the November election. President Reagan indicated during the campaign that he might favor relaxation of EEOC regulations and has since cut the agency's budget. But there were no immediate indications yesterday that longtime EEOC staff members were unhappy with the Sears settlement, or regarded it as weak.
The settlement of the race discrimination cases does not provide for any back pay or other monetary compensation to alleged victims of Sears employment practices. Sears employs more than 450,000 people nationwide.
Both sides applauded the settlement, which requires Sears to try harder to attract minority-group members as job applicants and also requires it to set up procedures to permit easier comparison of minority-group percentages among those who apply for jobs and those ultimately hired.
Further, Sears agreed to maintain records listing black and Hispanic applicants and blacks and Hispanics hired at all Sears facilities for 18 months after specified reporting periods. Under the agreement, records submitted to the EEOC by Sears will be kept confidential to the "maximum extent permissible under the Freedom of Information Act."
The agreement, which covers the next five years, bars the EEOC from filing class-action suits against Sears on behalf of alleged discrimination victims, but does not prohibit individuals from seeking such judicial relief.
The terms of the agreement "are directed at insuring that the employer will implement procedures to monitor its own hiring practices in ways that should assure compliance with the law," said J. Clay Smith Jr., acting chairman of the EEOC. "We believe that the agreement will enhance minority opportunities at Sears, and we hope to observe signs that will justify that belief in the near future."
Sears Chairman Edward R. Telling said the company is "pleased" with both the settlement and the fact that the settlement acknowledges that the "EEOC is now satisfied that Sears affirmative-action program, which has been in compliance the law. During that time, minority employment at Sears has increased from 8.75 percent or 24,600 to 20.8 percent or 67,850.
"The minor adjustment in our affirmative-action program to which we have agreed will be implemented immediately," Telling said. "We look forward to resolving the issues in the one remaining case in Chicago at an early date."
Sears has steadfastly argued that its hiring program is among the nation's best. Of four separate suits brought by the EEOC in 1979, courts in Montgomery, Ala., and New York had dismissed two, and a magistrate had recommended dismissal of one in Memphis. Another in Atlanta was pending.
The company -- which faced back pay penalties that could have totaled close to $100 million -- and its lead attorney in the case, Charles Morgan, a former director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, had conducted an agressive campaign against the legal practices of the EEOC and the hiring practices of the federal government. In the cases that were thrown out, dismissals were based, in part, on EEOC procedurel errors.
And while refusing to dismiss the continuing Chicago sex discriminaton suit, U.S. District Court Judge John Grady said he "does not condone" the EEOC's conduct in the handling of the matter.