Mark Louks says he has no regrets about speaking up. / KATHLEEN GALLIGAN/DETROIT FREE PRESS
By David Ashenfelter
Detroit Free Press Staff Writer
Mark Louks said he was outraged when his boss at Noble Metal Processing in Warren used the N-word to refer to a black co-worker.
So Louks, who is white, complained: to his boss, to his union and to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
And then he got fired.
"I was brought up to believe that everybody should be treated equally," said Louks, 54, of Eastpointe.
Louks is among a growing number of U.S. workers to turn to the EEOC to combat job discrimination. The agency received a record 99,947 complaints last year -- a 20.7% increase since 2007. It also obtained $513.6 million in compensation and other benefits for workers.
In 2008, the EEOC sued Noble in federal court, accusing it of repeatedly denying promotional opportunities to nonwhites and of retaliating against Louks.
The company denied the charges, but settled out of court in 2010, paying $190,000 to Louks and several minority workers.
The EEOC would have required the firm to launch an anti-discrimination training program, but it went out of business. Its lawyer wouldn't comment.
Louks said he has struggled since the firing to find steady work, but has no regrets: "Somebody had to stand up."
Busy Detroit EEOC wins $8.8M in 2011 claims
Rodney Trice said the first hint of trouble on his job at a Macomb County bridge painting company came when his foreman handed out new work gloves to white crew members, but told Trice and another black employee to fix their old ones with duct tape.
"It was humiliating," Trice recalled. "All of the white guys were laughing at us."
Later, Trice said, he overheard the foreman, who is white, refer to him using the N-word.
Trice, 45, of Port Huron said he complained to an owner, who pledged to make things right. But when the next painting season rolled around in 2008, Trice didn't get called back to work.
He complained to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Detroit, which sued the company last year in federal court.
The Detroit office, which covers Michigan and 15 counties in northwestern Ohio, received nearly 3,000 complaints during each of the last two years -- nearly double the number from 2007 -- making it the eighth busiest EEOC field office in the country. Last year it obtained $8.8 million for people who filed claims.
The EEOC accused Atsalis Bros. Painting of Warren of retaliating against Trice for complaining about his treatment.
In March, the company settled out of court without admitting wrongdoing. It agreed to pay Trice $65,000, adopt new procedures for handling discrimination complaints and provide more training for its supervisory staff.
"It was a business decision," Atsalis' lawyer, Karen Berkery of Detroit, said of the settlement. "Atsalis doesn't believe for one minute that he was retaliated against -- and I don't believe it either. But they wanted to resolve the case."
She said Atsalis investigated Trice's complaint and thought it had been resolved to his satisfaction. She said the company didn't call him back to work because of the recession and because Trice didn't want to work on distant painting projects -- which Trice said was untrue.
Berkery said Atsalis also offered to rehire him and assign him to a new foreman. But Trice said that was four years later and after he already had found a new job.
Shooting the messenger
EEOC lawyer Dale Price said Atsalis shot the messenger instead of dealing with the issue.
"All too often, companies turn a discrimination problem into a major retaliation case," Price said. "Retaliation is a very big deal for us."
The agency received a record 99,947 complaints during the 2011 fiscal year ending Sept. 30. One-third of the complaints involved race discrimination or retaliation.
Experts attributed the deluge of complaints to the recession, which cost millions of Americans their jobs, causing many to suspect they were victimized.
"When the economy goes bad and you need to get rid of 20% of your work force, you're going to try to protect the people you know," said Daron Calhoun, EEOC enforcement supervisor in Detroit, adding that it can cause bias.
The EEOC was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion and national origin. Congress later added more categories: disability, pregnancy, age (for people 40 and older), unequal pay, genetic information and retaliation.
The EEOC has three core missions: to educate employers, workers and the public about job discrimination; to investigate and mediate complaints, and, as a last resort, to sue.
Gail Cober, head of the Detroit field office, said the agency prefers to resolve complaints confidentially through mediation and conciliation, which typically takes 30 days to two years.
She said most employers prefer it that way: "If a case gets into litigation, it gets into a news release and the Company of the Year doesn't want the publicity from 45 women claiming sexual harassment."
Because the EEOC works mostly behind closed doors, she said, the public rarely hears about the worst cases or understands the extent of the problem. Until the EEOC shows up, many employers don't know they are at risk.
She said the agency usually can help 20%-25% of the people who seek help.
The EEOC has critics.
Plaintiff's lawyers say the EEOC suffers from chronic understaffing, takes too long to investigate and often obtains modest results for aggrieved workers who could do better in federal court with their own lawyer.
"I think the EEOC has too much on its plate and because of that, it's not as effective as it could be," said Deborah Gordon, a prominent Bloomfield Hills employment lawyer who began her legal career at the EEOC.
She said federal law should be amended so the victims of discrimination can sue in federal court without first going to the EEOC.
Defense lawyers complain that the agency often sees discrimination where none exists to justify its existence, drags companies through costly litigation on the basis of slipshod investigations and confounds employers with ever-shifting priorities.
"EEOC practices differ from region to region and sometimes within the same office, making it difficult for employers to know where they stand on employment issues," said Christopher DeGroff, a nationally known Chicago employment lawyer and co-author of a comprehensive 2011 report on EEOC litigation.
DeGroff said federal judges increasingly are taking the EEOC to task in lawsuits.
He cited last year's decision by a federal judge in Detroit who ordered the EEOC to pay an Ohio uniform company more than $2.6 million in legal fees and costs for needlessly prolonging an 11-year gender discrimination case.
The judge said the EEOC "engaged in a reckless sue first, ask questions later strategy."
The EEOC is appealing the decision, one of the largest fee judgments against the agency.
But Gordon and Michael Pitt, a noted Royal Oak employment lawyer, agreed that the EEOC is the go-to agency for aggrieved workers who can't find a private lawyer to take their case.
"In the right case, the EEOC can be very effective," Pitt said, referring to instances where an employee has been wrongly passed over for promotion or can't get the company to deal with a harassment complaint. "But if you have a major case, the EEOC is a stopover on your way to federal court."
Going to the EEOC has other benefits: The person filing the claim won't pay attorney fees, and the agency will pursue cases that private lawyers won't take.
The agency has plenty of satisfied customers, including Vickie Cowie, 55, of Westland.
Pinnacle Airlines, a Memphis, Tenn.-based airline that flies out of Detroit Metro Airport, fired Cowie from her clerical job in 2009 because it said she was walking too slowly on the job because of arthritis, the EEOC said.
It sued the airline under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Though Pinnacle denied the charges, it agreed in 2010 to pay her $20,000, change its disability discrimination policy and revamp training.
"I was devastated, absolutely devastated," Cowie said of the firing. "I was proud to be working for the airline, proud of the work I was doing and was being praised for my work."
She said the EEOC helped her get back on her feet.
"They treated me like I was their only client," Cowie said. "I want people to know that the EEOC is there to help and they will work their butts off for you."
Contact David Ashenfelter: firstname.lastname@example.org
More Details: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Background: Created by the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Budget and staffing: $367 million and 2,400 employees working in 53 field offices and Washington, D.C., headquarters.
Duties: Investigates claims that employers, employment agencies, labor organizations and state and local governments discriminated against employees or job applicants on the basis of their race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, national origin, age (40 and older), disability or genetic information.
The law covers most employers with at least 15 workers and applies to hiring, firing, promotions, harassment, training, wages and benefits.
The process: The EEOC tries to resolve claims without going to court. If it decides not to pursue a claim or file a lawsuit, it usually gives the complainants a letter authorizing them to sue in federal court within 90 days. It usually takes 30 days to two years to resolve a claim, or longer if the EEOC sues. The EEOC works with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, which investigates job discrimination complaints under state law. The department investigated 2,169 discrimination complaints last year and obtained $2.2 million in compensation and other benefits for victims. A right to sue letter isn't required to sue in state court.
For information: Go to www.eeoc.gov or call the national office at 800-669-4000 or the Detroit office at 313-226-4600. For the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, go to www.michigan .gov/mdcr or call 517-335-3165.