Grim stories a constant in EEOC caseload
The Dallas Morning News
Tucson, Arizona Published: 08.14.2006
wage at the John Pickle Co. in Oklahoma. The award: $1.24 million.
In March, a court heard the case of a black man who was harassed by fellow workers and restrained as they tightened a noose around his neck at Commercial Coating Service Inc. in Texas. The award: $1 million.
Horror stories like these are “a wake-up call to remind everyone that we have to remain vigilant, that these issues are not behind us,” said Cari M. Dominguez, chief executive and chairwoman of the nation’s job police, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“We are going to make sure that the full effect and full force of the law will be put down on these people. We don’t want to see these types of cases ever again.”
The EEOC, which litigated the Oklahoma and Texas cases, goes after some of the worst violators and says it prevails more than 90 percent of the time through court orders, settlement agreements and consent decrees.
The agency litigated more than 400 cases nationally in 2005, about the same as in recent years. But it handled 75,428 charges from workers alleging discrimination on the job, down from the 81,000 average of the previous five years and a steep drop from the 91,000 cases in fiscal 1994.
Violations of all kinds still occur, and some of the most shocking cases of late have come out of the EEOC’s Texas region offices.
“One of the most egregious”
Dominguez said the case against the John Pickle Co., a Tulsa-based oil industry parts manufacturer, reminded her of the abuses she saw in so many sweatshop investigations during her years as an assistant secretary in the Labor Department.
“That was one of the most egregious cases in a long, long time,” the EEOC chief said. “It wasn’t just about employment violations, but human rights violations.”
Eventually, the Indian plaintiffs received special T visas, authorized under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000.
The harsh circumstances of the victims’ lives drew the attention of the religious community as the group of Hindu, Muslim, Catholic and other Christian workers tried to attend churches and mosques and fought restrictions.
When one plaintiff, for example, asked to go to church, company owner John Pickle told him to stay in the dorm and watch the Playboy channel, according to the 71-page written opinion of U.S. District Judge Claire V. Eagan.
When Jagdish Prajapati and the other Indians arrived in Tulsa in 2001, their passports, visas and return-trip airline tickets were confiscated, court documents show.
The Indians were kept at a company dorm described by some plaintiffs as a “refugee camp” and by U.S. workers at the plant as the “Cram-a-lot Inn.”
They were told that, if they left, they might be harmed by Americans angered by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and, further, that “black residents of the surrounding area were dangerous and could shoot them,” according to the judge’s written opinion.
Eventually, an armed guard was hired to prevent “unauthorized departures” from the facility, and two plaintiffs testified that on one occasion, the dorm door was chained shut during the night.
In one of the many allegations of verbal abuse, Prajapati testified that Pickle said out loud, “These are my Indian animals I brought from India to work.”
Not eligible for U.S. wages
John Pickle Co. argued that the plaintiffs were not eligible to be employed for U.S. wages because of the type of visas they held.
The court, however, determined that they were employees and entitled to the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour and overtime pay. It is undisputed that the company didn’t pay the plaintiffs the legal rate, the judge’s final order read.
As the Latino population has grown, the EEOC has dealt with more national-origin issues such as Spanish use in the workplace.
In such cases, the EEOC uses national origin protections in the Civil Rights Act. Domin-guez said workplace treatment, rather than immigration status, is the focus of the EEOC’s work.
National origin cases make up about 10 percent of all charges filed at the EEOC, and half of those cases come from Hispanics, EEOC statistics show.