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EEOC sues Walgreens for discrimination in assigning black store managers

March 22, 2007 by  
Filed under News (March 8, 2007) Walgreen Co. store manager Johnny Tucker claims it was an open secret among his African-American colleagues that their chances of being assigned to stores in white neighborhoods were slim.

“It was something many of us accepted and tolerated,” said the 21-year Walgreens veteran, who manages a store in Independence, Mo. “But it finally got to the point with me when I could no longer accept it.”

His breaking point came after taking a 90-day leave for stress from managing a store in a tough Kansas City neighborhood where he battled shoplifters.

His complaint in 2004 against Walgreens to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, one of more than 20 similar complaints from around the country, became the basis for a class-action lawsuit filed Wednesday by the EEOC alleging widespread racial bias against thousands of African-American managers and pharmacists.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in St. Louis.

Walgreens said in a statement that “fairness and equality always have been the cornerstones of our business. We’re the nation’s best-represented retailer in urban areas, and managers of all backgrounds are promoted to senior levels from those locations.”

The class action coincides with the launch of a new EEOC campaign to root out racial bias by focusing on emerging race and color issues in workplaces.

The initiative, called E-RACE (Eradicating Racism and Colorism from Employment) was announced last week in Washington and targets systemic patterns of bias, both obvious and subtle.

You can’t fight discrimination on a charge-by-charge basis,” said Commission Chair Naomi Earp, who said the agency must reduce the time it takes to process and litigate cases. “In the past systemic cases have taken 5 to 10 years. People who lose their jobs can’t wait that long. We want to come in like a strike force.”

Earp, the first African-American to chair the commission since Eleanor Holmes Norton during the Jimmy Carter administration, issued a mandate to all 15 of the commission’s district offices to litigate at least one systemic bias class-action case a year. She also asked that EEOC attorneys dig deeper and become involved earlier in the investigative process.

We want to look at the screen-out factors that employers use,” Earp said. “Is that credit report really necessary? African-Americans and Hispanics have more credit issues. We’ll be looking at names and whether employers are using them to make the first cut, especially in Internet applications. Your sorority or your school or your ZIP code can be a giveaway on a resume too. There are processes for us to reach that victim. We’ll do it in reverse; we’ll go to them and tell them about the bias.”

In the past EEOC attorneys have had to wait for complainants to come forward before launching an investigation. But under E-RACE, investigators are encouraged to analyze companies’ employment data and engage in matched-pair studies to reveal preferences for certain candidates.

E-RACE will explore new tools,” Commissioner Stuart Ishimaru said. “We cannot afford to shy away.”

An example of the type of case the agency intends to pursue is a class action filed by the EEOC in 2002 after three Marquette University students complained about bias by a hiring manager at a suburban Milwaukee Target store. A fourth person, a black male, complained of similar treatment.

Ralpheal Brown, then a Marquette University senior, said she grew suspicious after the store manager, a white male, scheduled telephone interviews with her and two other female students for entry-level management positions but never kept the appointments.

When he never returned our phone calls it raised a red flag,” said Brown, 28, referring to co-plaintiffs Cherise Easley and Kalisha White.

The students suspect that when the manager called to set up interviews their voices tipped him off to their race.

White decided to test their suspicions by resubmitting her resume as “Sarah Brucker,” a white friend of her cousin’s, without race-identifying affiliations such as her sorority. The manager called Brucker to schedule an in-person interview but was too busy to talk to White when she phoned minutes later, according to court documents.

White’s self-motivated “sting operation” led investigators to the hiring manager’s callback list. They found that out of 10 applicants, only the two African-American women never received callbacks, while the eight white applicants did, said the lead EEOC attorney, Dennis McBride in Milwaukee.

“I just don’t know why these people weren’t hired,” he said, adding that two of the four plaintiffs have gone on to receive master’s degrees and a third, Easley, is pursuing her doctorate. “They’re absolutely dynamic people.”

Target said in a statement that the retailer prohibits discrimination based on race or any other [protected] characteristic and retains records of employment applications and hiring decisions, as required by law.

“In this case Target did not take any action toward any of the applicants based upon their race,” the statement said, adding that the retailer expects to prevail at trial.

Civil-rights attorneys say the case underscores the difficulties in proving and litigating more subtle forms of race and color discrimination.

A U.S. district judge in Milwaukee dismissed the case but the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in August that some of the claims could go forward. The trial is set to begin in Milwaukee on Sept. 10.

In the Walgreens suit the EEOC charges that the chain assigns managers based on their race to low-performing stores and to stores in African-American communities. It also charges that Walgreens denies them opportunities for promotion.

Store manager Tucker has worked for Walgreens in Kansas, Missouri and Florida.

“The patterns I saw were, if you were African-American, the chances are you would be assigned to an African-American store,” he said.

“Most of my career has been in inner-city stores,” he said. “I’ve been robbed by gunpoint, I’ve had a knife pulled on me twice. It was a daily occurrence that we had to approach and stop shoplifters” because managers are responsible for profit and losses.

Tucker’s attorney, Amy Coopman, who filed a separate private suit in 2005 on his behalf, said Walgreens should be applauded for “being one of the few retailers that will build stores in inner cities.”

“We are hoping this lawsuit helps employees be rotated through the different stores in a more equal fashion,” she said.

By Barbara Rose and T. Shawn Taylor

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