New Anti-bias Case May Signal a Wave of Workplace Lawsuits

Texaco settlement emboldens minority workers, including some at UPS.

The eye-opening Texaco discrimination case - which yielded the largest payment ever to African-American workers - is reverberating far from the oil giant's New York headquarters.

In what may signal a new push in antidiscrimination lawsuits, African-American workers are filing a complaint in California against United Parcel Service, alleging the shipping company discriminates against blacks in promotion.

The UPS suit, which was to be filed in federal court yesterday afternoon, is yet another sign of the racial divide in America's workplace - particularly over African-Americans' ability, or perceived inability, to move into middle- and senior-management positions.

But it may also indicate that the Texaco outcome last year has emboldened more minorities to take on corporate Goliaths.

"One thing that Texaco did was not so much shock the corporations, but it has given people the courage and the will to follow through," says Gary Brouse of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility in New York. He is among the analysts who expect to see an increase in lawsuits challenging companies' promotion practices.

The UPS suit may also indicate that, at a time of affirmative-action rollbacks, people with grievances may turn more often to courts for enforcement of existing antidiscrimination laws.

The class action against UPS was filed by 16 African-Americans who work at the company as hourly employees and part-time supervisors. They are suing on behalf of several thousand workers in the Northwest and Pacific regions of the country.

The suit alleges that UPS discriminates against blacks in job assignments, promotions, and compensation. It also asserts that minority workers endure a racially hostile environment.

"What happens, by and large, is that African-Americans are hired into the least-desirable, least-promotable jobs and they tend to stay there," says Jacqueline Mottek, one of the lawyers for the workers. Specifically, the suit charges that African-American delivery drivers are assigned to the least desirable, most crime-ridden routes.

The Atlanta-based firm denies the charges, saying drivers are assigned routes on the basis of seniority, and the best routes go to those with more seniority.

The company says it is still not clear on the specific charges despite a "very concerted effort" to communicate with the attorneys and the NAACP branch in Oakland, Calif., which has been investigating the case.

UPS also says it has a zero-tolerance discrimination policy. "We do not tolerate and will not tolerate discrimination of any kind," says spokesman Mark Dickens.

UPS, with about 340,000 employees worldwide, says 30 percent of its workers are minorities and 15 percent are women. The firm was included in the 1993 edition of "The Best Companies for Minorities" by New York attorney Lawrence Otis Graham.

"They're very strong at contributing to minority organizations," Mr. Graham says of UPS, "but they certainly didn't distinguish themselves [in] recruiting and [promoting] minorities."

David Howard, a Harvard University professor who has studied race relations in companies, says the suit represents, in part, "the unevenness, even within a single corporation, with which issues of diversity are being addressed."

If businesses have increased hiring of minorities, analysts say, they still need to work on minority representation in middle- and upper-management ranks.

"It's not about hiring and recruiting," Graham says. "It's about making sure that ... [it's] possible for minorities to enter ... management positions. That is the next phase of these suits."

HIGH COST OF RACIAL DISCRIMINATION

Some recent settlements or jury awards against companies charged with racial bias in hiring, promotions, or layoffs.

Firm Amount (in millions)

Texaco $176.0

Shoney's 105.0

Publix* 85.0

Denny's** 46.0

So. Cal. Edison 18.3

Illinois Central Railroad 13.0

Pitney Bowes 11.1

* Included gender and racial bias.

** Charge was bias against customers, not employees

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