Government turns up heat on employers over discrimination
WASHINGTON — It started with allegations of hangman’s nooses, graffiti and racist comments targeting a handful of black workers at a trucking company warehouse in Chicago Ridge, Ill.
Four years later, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had turned the case into a major class-action lawsuit alleging more than 170 employees of Yellow Transportation were victims of a racially hostile work environment.
When the company agreed in June to settle the case for $11 million, it became the EEOC’s latest victory in a systemic strategy to bring more large-scale bias cases against prominent companies, all in the name of cracking down on discrimination in the workplace.
Instead of filing a lawsuit on behalf of one worker at a time, the commission is increasingly trying to super-size cases. Investigators look for patterns of discrimination against dozens or even hundreds of workers at a single company in areas such as hiring, pay, promotion or termination.
The EEOC, which enforces the nation’s workplace antidiscrimination laws, hopes that larger settlements that generate widespread publicity will send a strong message to employers about complying with the law.
While the tactic has won praise for deterring discrimination, business groups complain that the EEOC is overreaching, driving up their legal bills and making their investments riskier. Federal courts also have rapped the commission, saying in particular cases that it overstepped its bounds.
Many corporate targets such as Yellow Transportation, now YRC Worldwide, often decide that it is cheaper to settle without admitting guilt than to endure years of costly litigation against the government.
“They’ve gotten every employer’s attention,” said Chicago lawyer Gerald Maatman, who represents companies sued by the EEOC. “It’s a commission that, under the Obama administration, has dramatically expanded its enforcement efforts to send a message to corporate America.”
The systemic effort has surged from less than 50 active investigations in 2006 to nearly 600 last year.