EEOC lawsuit accuses company of pervasive discrimination

MACEDONIA, Ohio (AP) - Black workers at an industrial cleaner factory were confronted with racist graffiti, a wire noose and a "whites only" sign and received less protective gear than white
co-workers, according to a federal discrimination lawsuit against the company.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Royal Chemical Co. in Macedonia on behalf of several former employees last month when private negotiations failed, the agency said in a
news release Friday.

The company, located about 15 miles southeast of Cleveland, denied the allegations.

"EEOC is not a body who just files lawsuits frivolously," former worker Kenneth Taylor said Saturday. "They have done a thorough investigation."

Taylor, 42, of Twinsburg, filed the original complaint. He said he needed the $12-an-hour job to support his wife and five children, so for more than a year he tried to shrug off insults that he said included bathroom graffiti showing white men urinating on black men drawn as monkeys.

A Confederate flag and a wire twisted in the shape of a noose hung in the factory near a "whites-only" sign, he said.

Taylor also said managers scoffed at him when he complained of frequent nosebleeds from breathing powder from caustic chemicals.

His job was to weigh, label, stack and prepare for shipping 100-pound bags of chemicals.

The company issued respirators to white workers, Taylor said, but gave blacks, including himself, dust masks.

Taylor said he was fired in January 2001 for "verbal abuse" after a confrontation with another employee. He has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Cleveland.

Ed Kubek, vice president of finance for Royal Chemical, said he and other managers never saw derogatory graffiti or a noose.

"It stems from charges filed by one former disgruntled employee, and as far as I know, that employee never complained to anyone in management," he said. "We believe the suit is without
merit."

Fewer than 20 of Royal Chemical's 80 employees are black, the EEOC said. The company in this community 15 miles south of Cleveland makes soaps and detergents for various industries.

Michael Fetzer, district director of the EEOC's Cleveland office, said his staff has tried unsuccessfully since April 2001 to work with Royal Chemical's managers to improve the work
environment.

Other workers backed up Taylor's accounts, Fetzer said.

Both agency officials and Taylor said they were surprised managers didn't know about the harassment, since they used the same bathroom.

"I have a picture of wire hanging in the shape of a noose. I don't know what else you'd think it was," said Donna Williams Alexander, senior trial attorney for the agency.

Taylor said his black co-workers didn't want to file a formal complaint at first because they feared losing their jobs.

"It's tough when you have to make a choice between feeding your family and doing the right thing," he said. "When you don't have a job with five kids in America, it's real hard."

The EEOC lawsuit filed in Akron seeks an injunction requiring the company to develop policies against harassment as well as unspecified compensation for Taylor.

The agency tries first to educate employers about providing fair workplaces and considers a lawsuit a "last resort," Fetzer said.

"Litigation is only reserved for those who do not get it or won't get it," Fetzer said. "We expect that the company's management will be highly educated after this is all over."

In July, a group of workers at Xerox Corp.'s Cincinnati facilities said they were considering a lawsuit after an EEOC report described a racially hostile environment, including swastikas and black dolls in nooses in work areas.

"People shouldn't be lulled into complacency," Alexander said. "It's more common than people would ever think."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)