EEOC Settles Race Discrimination Claim Against Hillshire Brands
Shortly before Christmas, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced a $4 million settlement of a race discrimination claim against Hillshire Brands Company. In addition to consenting to take other remedial measures, Hillshire agreed to pay compensation to 74 African-American employees who alleged that they were subject to a hostile work environment in a Sara Lee plant in Paris, Texas. The plant closed in 2011. The discrimination occurred before Hillshire Brands, which is owned by Tyson Foods, acquired Sara Lee.
The $4 million payment has been characterized as the largest race discrimination settlement by EEOC in the last 15 years. Hillshire Brands disagreed with at least some allegations in EEOC’s complaint but entered into a consent decree to resolve the case
Hostile Work Environment
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that prohibits race discrimination in any workplace that has more than 15 employees. While the law prohibits race discrimination in hiring, firing, and pay, it also applies broadly to all terms and conditions of employment. Courts and the EEOC have long interpreted Title VII to prohibit racial harassment when putting up with harassment effectively becomes a condition of employment.
While isolated incidents of rude or offensive behavior at work do not typically entitle employees to a remedy for race discrimination, a single incident of harassment, if particularly severe, might violate Title VII. In most cases, however, it is the accumulation of harassing incidents over time that trigger a violation of the federal civil rights law. When racially harassing conduct becomes so pervasive as to “create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive,” the hostile work environment is racially discriminatory.
Employers are held responsible for racially hostile work environments when:
- the harasser is the victim’s supervisor or, in some cases, another official who has decision-making authority over the victim, or
- the harasser is the CEO of the victim’s employer, or
- management is aware of harassment by other employees and either condones it or fails to take reasonable actions to end it.
An employer can be liable for a hostile work environment under other circumstances, as well. For example, an employer that fails to create a policy that encourages employees to report incidents of harassment may have difficulty arguing that it was unaware of pervasive incidents of harassment within its workforce. In that case, the employer might be regarded as deliberately avoiding knowledge of misconduct in its workplace.
Sara Lee’s Work Environment
According to the EEOC complaint, racist graffiti was scrawled on bathroom walls at the former Sara Lee plant in Paris, Texas. The graffiti included racial epithets, racist symbols, racial slurs, and “crude drawings of apes and black men hanging from nooses.” EEOC alleged that Sara Lee officials were aware of the graffiti but took no corrective action in response to complaints made by African-American employees. EEOC also alleged that a white supervisor and some white co-employees used racial slurs when speaking to African-American employees.
In addition to creating a hostile work environment, EEOC found that Sara Lee management favored white employees when making job assignments. Black employees were disproportionately assigned to hazardous jobs that exposed them to asbestos, mold, and other toxic substances.
Critical to the lawsuit was EEOC’s finding that African-American workers repeatedly complained to management about being berated with racial slurs and subjected to racist graffiti, but management took no remedial action. According to an EEOC investigation, slurs and graffiti continued for years, creating an atmosphere of intimidation and resulting in the embarrassment of African-Americans who worked on the bakery production lines. EEOC concluded that plant managers were aware of the problem but tacitly condoned the harassing behavior by failing to implement policies designed to correct it.
A consent decree is a settlement agreement that, when approved by a court, requires a defendant to take certain steps to remedy conditions that resulted in an EEOC enforcement action. The defendant does not admit wrongdoing but agrees to implement policies that will prevent wrongdoing in the future.
The consent decree between EEOC and Hillshire Brands will remain in effect for two years. It requires Hillshire to refrain from discriminating against its employees on account of race, from maintaining a hostile work environment, and from retaliating against employees who joined in the EEOC complaint. More specifically, the consent decree requires Hillshire to:
- Designate at least one employee at each facility who is responsible for receiving and investigating confidential complaints of discrimination and harassment.
- Post a notice in each of its current plants, and provide the notice to all new hires, informing employees that Hillshire has a “zero tolerance” policy regarding discrimination and identifying the individuals who will receive and investigate complaints of discrimination and harassment.
- Conduct at least one training session per year at its current Texas plant to assure that all plant employees and managers understand the “zero tolerance” discrimination policy.
- Adopt and implement a “graffiti abatement policy” that provides for prompt removal of graffiti and for discipline of employees who place graffiti on Hillman property.
- Take appropriate disciplinary action, up to and including termination, for violations of the “zero tolerance” discrimination policy or the graffiti abatement policy.
- Pay a total of $4 million to compensate 74 African-American employees who were exposed to a hostile work environment.
The consent decree gives EEOC the ability to seek sanctions if it believes any conditions of the decree are breached during the next two years. Consent decrees are a powerful enforcement tool because they do not require EEOC to commence a new proceeding it if determines that Hillman discriminated against any other employee while the consent decree remains in effect.