Black Trainee at Sports Store Endured Slurs, Threats, EEOC Says

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By Kevin McGowan

Big 5 Corp., one of the West Coast’s largest sporting goods retailers, unlawfully permitted the racial harassment of a black manager trainee who was subjected to racist slurs and death threats, the EEOC alleges in a federal lawsuit ( EEOC v. Big 5 Corp. , W.D. Wash., No. 17-1098, complaint filed 7/20/17 ).

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission currently is considering draft enforcement guidance to help prevent workplace harassment. Commissioners are expected to approve final guidelines within the next few months.The EEOC received a total of 32,309 race discrimination charges in fiscal 2016, making it the second most frequently alleged type of bias in agency charges, trailing only retaliation.

Robert Sanders, the only black employee at Big 5’s Oak Harbor, Wash., store, was called “spook,” “boy,” and “King Kong,” among other racially derogatory terms by store managers, the EEOC said in its complaint, filed July 20. Sanders’ complained to upper management, but that spurred more harassment as well as retaliation in the form of increased workloads, denial of breaks, and unwarranted discipline, the agency said.

When Sanders took stress-related leave, an assistant manager allegedly told him, “We will hang you, we will seriously lynch you if you call in again this week.” Other assistant managers asked if Sanders was “ready to commit suicide” and “offered assistance when he was ready,” the EEOC said.

The EEOC seeks to hold Big 5 liable for race discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It’s asking the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington to award compensatory and punitive damages to Sanders and an injunction against future bias and retaliation.

A company spokeswoman at Big 5’s headquarters in El Segundo, Calif., declined to comment July 21.

Big 5’s delay in trying to investigate and stop the harassment and retaliation against Sanders is “inexcusable,” Nancy Sienko, the EEOC’s field director in Seattle, said in a July 20 statement.

“The slurs and threats that Mr. Sanders faced have a terrible history and should never be tolerated,” Sienko said. Employers must “ensure that all employees can work in a safe environment free from racial hostility so they can succeed to their highest potential,” she said.

EEOC attorneys in Seattle represent the commission. No attorney has yet entered an appearance for Big 5 Corp.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kevin McGowan in Washington at kmcgowan@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

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