Is it ever okay for a supervisor to use a racial slur at work? Should an employer be allowed to fire you in retaliation for filing a harassment complaint? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently drew its line in the sand against these forms of racial discrimination by filing a lawsuit in New York’s federal district court.
In this blog I will review the recently filed lawsuit, EEOC v. A & F Fire Protection Co., Inc. in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. I will summarize Title VII of the Civil Rights Act as to racial discrimination and retaliation, and explain what made A & F’s conduct cross the line for the organization.
Company Supports Racial Slurs Against Black and Hispanic Employees
Black and Hispanic employees of the sprinkler installation company, A & F Fire Protection Co. Inc., located in Massapequa, New York, came to the EEOC with very specific and disturbing complaints. They said their supervisors and co-workers were calling the minority workers the “N-word”, “spics”, “jigaboos” and “wetbacks”. The company knew this was happening, according to the complaints, and refused to step in to protect its employees from racial harassment and discrimination.
Instead of addressing the racism and bigotry happening among its employees, the EEOC alleges the Long Island-based company retaliated against the minority workers who raised the issue, firing them or forcing them to quit. According to the complaint, when the company received notice that two EEOC charges had been filed against it, the owner instructed the complaining workers’ supervisor to fire them. The supervisor refused, and the company retaliated against him as well.
The EEOC attempted pre-suit conciliation. When no settlement could be reached, it filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of New York on behalf of the employees for back wages, compensatory and punitive damages, and changes to the company’s employment policies to prevent future harassment.
Title VII and Racial Discrimination
Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act makes it illegal for an employers to discriminate based on a person’s race, color, or national origin (among other protected traits). When racial harassment happens at work, whether by supervisors or co-workers, an employer is legally required to take reasonable steps to stop the behavior. Depending on the situation this may include changes to or enforcement of company policy, discipline against the harassers, or reassignment of the parties involved.
While racial slurs like those used at A & F Fire Protection Co. Inc. are not the only form of racial discrimination, they can easily create a hostile working environment that violates the law. EEOC Trial Attorney Kirsten Peters said in a statement:
Federal courts have held that even one utterance of a racial slur by a supervisor in the workplace can constitute legally actionable harassment. In this case, the use of racial slurs was a regular occurrence. Employers cannot permit widespread harassment of this sort to occur.
EEOC New York District Office Regional Attorney Jeffrey Burstein added:
The use of racial slurs in the workplace is unacceptable. . . . The abuse was so pervasive in this case that its tolerance was especially troubling. Upon learning of racial harassment in the workplace, it is an employer’s obligation under the law to ensure that it does not continue.
Retaliation for EEOC Complaints
When A & F employees asked their company to address the racial slurs being thrown around at work they faced retaliation for raising the issue. This kind of retaliation is illegal under Title VII (and many other anti-discrimination laws on the state and federal level). An employer may not discipline, punish, or make employment decisions about a worker who:
- Speaks to a supervisor or manager about discrimination or harassment
- Refuses orders that would result in discrimination
- Registers internal complaints about racial slurs or a hostile working environment
- Files an EEOC charge, complaint, or lawsuit
- Acts as a witness or answers questions during an internal or EEOC investigation.
This is true even if the allegations turn out to be false, or the person incorrectly believes that the behavior is illegal racial discrimination.
However, all too often employers facing EEOC investigations resort to retaliation in an effort to remove the problem. It often demonstrates that the biases behind the statements exist at even the highest levels of the organization. When that happens, it creates a new Title VII claim for the targeted employees and only compounds the company’s problems. EEOC New York District Office Director Kevin Berry explains:
An employer only makes a bad situation worse and violates federal law when it retaliates against an employee for raising concerns about discriminatory behavior. Preventing retaliation against employees who come to the EEOC for help is one of the agency’s top priorities.
Racial discrimination and retaliation are unfortunate realities for many American workers. But employees do not have to put up with this kind of hostile work environment. Whether through the EEOC or a private Title VII lawsuit, they can see changes at work and be compensated for their suffering, time, and trouble.
Whether you are facing racial slurs, retaliation, or other, more subtle forms of racial discrimination at work, the employment discrimination attorneys at Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, based in New York City, are here to help. We will meet with you to review your claims, help you choose the best course of action, and see it through to the end. Contact Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, today to talk to an employment discrimination attorney.