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Nooses, Confederate flags and monkey imagery: 19 black UPS workers say company ‘encouraged a culture of racism’

Trucks are parked at the UPS sorting facility near Toronto in Vaughan, Ontario, in December 2009. (Bloomberg News/Getty Images)

Nearly 20 current and former UPS workers sued the package delivery company Wednesday, alleging it “enabled, tolerated, and purposefully promoted and encouraged a culture of racism and racially discriminatory conduct to take root” at a distribution center in Maumee, Ohio.

The 19 people, many of whom are longtime employees, allege that they experienced a “persistent and continuing racially hostile work environment” for decades at the facility located about 10 miles southwest of Toledo, according to a lawsuit filed in Lucas County Common Pleas Court and published by the Toledo Blade.

The lawsuit claims that, among other incidents going back to at least 2013, nooses were once hung above the workstation of a black employee, Confederate flags were displayed, a monkey doll was dressed to look like a UPS worker and the n-word was frequently used. The employees also allege that the discriminatory behavior “permeated” employment decisions, resulting in minority workers being “systematically denied job opportunities” at the distribution center.

“African-American employees come to work each day not knowing whether a racist comment or conduct will confront them, being concerned that smirking or laughing white employees are ridiculing them because of their race, and walking on eggshells to avoid triggering a problem,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit, which names UPS and five local managers and supervisors, is seeking a court order to stop the discrimination as well as compensation exceeding $25,000 and an unspecified amount in punitive damages “to deter future unlawful conduct.”

“As outrageous and unacceptable as these overt, threatening and racist acts are, there’s a bigger problem here,” Fred Gittes, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the Blade. “The bigger problem here is not these specific events — they’re terrible — but the way they reflect the larger problem which is that these long-term employees . . . were uniformly and consistently treated unfairly and unequally over and over again.”

Dean Foust, a UPS spokesman, told The Washington Post in a statement late Wednesday that the company “has strict policies against harassment and discrimination.”

“UPS promptly investigated and took swift disciplinary action against those found to have engaged in inappropriate actions, including the discharge of two employees,” Foust said. “Since that time, the company has participated in remedial actions in cooperation with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission so that employees are trained and our operations are monitored to ensure we maintain a positive work environment, free of harassment.”

When incidents are reported, Foust added, “UPS takes the matter seriously, thoroughly investigates and takes appropriate disciplinary action against those found responsible for misconduct.”

Attorneys representing the workers could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

This is not the first time UPS has faced these types of allegations. In March 2016, workers at a facility in Riviera Beach, Fla., alleged that they had experienced racism and harassment, WPTV reported at the time. A month later, eight black men in Lexington, Ky., were awarded a total of $5.3 million in damages after a jury found UPS liable for creating a hostile workplace, discrimination and retaliation, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. In August that year, employees in North Carolina staged a protest, claiming that they had also dealt with unfair working conditions, the News & Observer reported. People told the newspaper that minority workers, such as blacks and Hispanics, were targeted most often.

The 46-page lawsuit filed this week painted a similarly troubling picture of life for black employees at the Maumee UPS facility.

In July 2016, a white employee, who has since been fired, allegedly “fashioned two hangman’s nooses” and hung them over a desk belonging to a black co-worker, the lawsuit said. Other white employees, including a supervisor, were present and made jokes about the nooses, but the suit claims they were not disciplined.

When the event was investigated, the black employee was told by a supervisor not to talk about what had happened and to delete his cellphone pictures of the nooses, the lawsuit said.

The suit also detailed the contents of a group text message conversation from July 2016, in which white employees made comments such as, “If you feel down and out, the noose is loose” and “Like Clint Eastwood said, ‘Hang ’em High.’” The messages were reported to management, but no disciplinary action was taken, the suit alleges.

Other examples of “racial hostility” included a white delivery driver refusing to go into a predominantly black neighborhood, which she referred to as “n-word-ville” and “n-word City,” and another white employee telling his co-workers that he was “late for a Klan meeting.”

According to the lawsuit, the delivery driver was fired but later reinstated. The other employee was not disciplined, the suit said.

Given the number of reports of these types of incidents and the alleged responses by management, the lawsuit accused UPS of taking actions that “promoted and tolerated an atmosphere of racism in which individual employees feel free to display overt racial biases through conduct.”

Though the events described in the suit go back to only 2013, the employees allege that the discriminatory behavior has gone on for much longer. A majority of the plaintiffs have worked at the facility for more than 10 years, and were repeatedly overlooked when it came to favorable job assignments and promotions, the lawsuit alleges.

“Uniformly they were treated as second-class employees with less opportunity, less earning opportunities, and forced to be always wondering if they would still have jobs if they had tried to do anything about it,” Gittes told the Blade on Wednesday.

After receiving more than 25 complaints from the facility’s employees, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission found in June 2017 there was “probable cause to believe that discrimination and retaliation had occurred,” but decided not to pursue charges, according to the suit. Instead, the suit said the commission reached an agreement with UPS in November 2018 that did not compensate the employees or require the company to admit wrongdoing.

“The paper promises of UPS to be an equal opportunity employer with zero tolerance of racist comments or conduct are, in practice, merely empty promises,” the lawsuit said.

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