Federal attorneys with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said Tuesday that a $4 million settlement for former workers at the now closed Sara Lee factory in Paris, Texas, sends a message to employers that workplace discrimination and dangerous work environments won’t be tolerated.
Black employees suffered intimidation, racial taunts including being called the ‘N’ word, and racist graffiti on the walls of bathrooms and the locker room at the plant in Paris, Suzanne Anderson, supervisory trial attorney with the EEOC, said at a news conference outside the federal courthouse in Dallas. In addition, the former bakery employees were required to work in hazardous areas of the plant, exposing them to toxic materials, she said.
Hillshire Brands Co., which formerly owned Sara Lee, will pay a total of $4 million to a group of 74 African American former employees and take other steps to settle the lawsuit.
Human resources professionals and employment lawyers especially should take note of the settlement, Jay Ellwanger
, an Austin attorney for workers who had filed a civil suit before the EEOC filed its case, told me in an interview before the news conference.
The Paris plant was a Sara Lee factory for decades, Ellwanger said. Hillshire Brands, which owned the Sara Lee brand, sold the brand to Bimbo Bakeries, but closed the Paris plant instead of selling it to Sara Lee. So Bimbo Bakeries currently owns Sara Lee, but Hillshire Brands owns the liabilities from the plant, and Tyson Foods has since acquired Hillshire Brands, Ellwanger said.
He said he does not know whether the discrimination allegations and pending litigation factored into the decision to sell the Paris plant.
“We certainly had our suspicions,” Ellwanger said. “The timing was suspect.”
The 74 former Sara Lee employees received varying amounts, and they have all received their checks from the company, Anderson told me in an interview after the conference
The two-year consent decree settling the case provides for an injunction under which Hillshire will implement anti-discrimination or harassment programs and conduct training to prevent and promptly address graffiti in other Texas plants it owns.
Sara Wyn Kane, a New York attorney who represented the clients in the lawsuit, said the takeaway for employers is that it’s never acceptable to treat people differently based on the color of their skin, nor is it acceptable to allow others to do so. She said that job site discrimination and harassment continues to be a significant problem at large and small companies nationwide.
“As an employer, you have an obligation to make sure that people can come to work free of discrimination, and free of fearing for their health and safety,” Kane said. “If you see that or learn about it, you need to stop it as an employer. You can’t sit back and hope it goes away or think that it’s OK.”
The settlement is the largest in the history of the EEOC in Dallas involving a hostile work environment.
-Staff Writer Bill Heathcock, Dallas Business Journal