Blacks vs. Latinos at Work

Miriam Jordan, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 24, 2006

LOS ANGELES—Donnie Gaut, an African-American with 12 years of warehouse experience, applied for a job in 2002 at Farmer John Meats, a large Los Angeles pork processor. When he was turned down for the position, a job stocking goods that paid $7 an hour, Mr. Gaut decided the problem wasn’t his résumé—it was his race. He filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces antidiscrimination laws in the workplace.

Last October, the EEOC secured a $110,000 settlement from the company to be shared by Mr. Gaut and six other black applicants who were rejected for production jobs at Farmer John based on their race, according to the agency.

The EEOC says it found that the pork packer, owned by Clougherty Packing Co., had been almost exclusively hiring Hispanics for warehouse, packing and production jobs. Clougherty was acquired by Hormel Foods Corp. in 2004.

In response to questions, Clougherty Packing said in a statement that settlement of the case “in no way suggests the company did anything wrong.” It said the packer wanted to avoid “what would have been costly and protracted litigation.”

A new wave of race-discrimination cases is appearing in the workplace: African-Americans who feel that they are being passed over for Hispanics.

This kind of case marks a shift from years past, when blacks were likely to seek legal action against employers who showed preferential treatment toward whites. The cases highlight mounting tension between Hispanics and blacks as they compete for resources and job opportunities.

Recently, the federal agency announced it also secured a $180,000 settlement from Zenith National Insurance Corp., a national workers-compensation specialist, to be divided among 10 blacks who applied for a mailroom job at its headquarters in Woodland Hills, Calif. The job was offered to a Latino man with no mailroom experience, according to the EEOC.

Henry Shields, an attorney for Zenith, said the insurance company had adopted EEOC recommendations for improving its hiring practices “as a means of furthering its goals of equal opportunity.” Mr. Shields declined to comment on the specifics of the case.

“There used to be a reluctance to bring cases against other minorities,” says Anna Park, the EEOC regional attorney who oversaw both the Zenith and the Farmer John cases. “It’s no longer a white-black paradigm. This is a new trend.”

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Tension has spilled into the workplace. In New Orleans, city officials have raised concerns that employers are hiring Latino immigrants for low wages to do the hurricane cleanup instead of tapping the native-born, mainly black, work force. Last October, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin asked local business leaders: “How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?”

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In the Zenith National Insurance case, Charles Dennis, who applied for a mailroom job he spotted in a newspaper’s classified section in 2001, says his interview with a Hispanic manager “went great.” He first became suspicious that something wasn’t right when, in a follow-up call, the company told him the $10-an-hour position was put on hold.

Then, a few weeks later, Mr. Dennis—who had worked in another large insurer’s mailroom—got a call from an employment agency telling him they had “the perfect job” for him, he recalls. It turned out to be the same position. He says the agency then called back and told him that Zenith “just didn’t want to go with me.”

Mr. Dennis took his case to the EEOC, which began to investigate. It found that Mr. Dennis and several other black applicants with relevant experience were passed over in favor of a Latino candidate, whose previous work amounted to mainly “swabbing decks on aircraft carriers” in the Navy, according to Ms. Park, the EEOC attorney.

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