Equal treatment 

EEOC promises stiffer enforcement in Montana

On Jan. 1, 2006, the San Francisco office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces federal equal opportunity laws, assumed enforcement responsibility for Montana and other northwestern states from the commission’s Denver office.

On Sept. 26 the San Francisco office filed its first lawsuit in Montana, on behalf of Columbia Falls resident Earle Nevins.

And that suit, according to Joan Ehrlich, director of the San Francisco office, marks a change in how aggressively the EEOC intends to enforce equal opportunity laws in the northwest. While Nevins’ case may be her first in Montana, Ehrlich says it won’t be the last.

“We’re looking to be much more active in Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho and Alaska,” she says.

Ehrlich declined to comment on the Denver office’s oversight of enforcement in Montana.

Ehrlich’s inaugural Montana suit alleges that co-workers at a Les Schwab tire store near Kalispell called Nevins, who is a member of the Blackfeet tribe, racially derogatory names and told insulting jokes about American Indians. The suit also alleges that during the time Nevins worked there, he complained about such harassment 30 times to his supervisors and to Les Schwab’s human resources department. The suit claims Nevins’ supervisors dismissed the alleged harassment as “horseplay.” Eventually, Nevins asked his supervisor to document his complaints; four days later, the suit claims, Nevins was fired. A press release from the EEOC says Nevins’ 2004 dismissal came just two weeks before Christmas, when his wife was eight months pregnant with the couple’s fourth child.

“This guy was treated very badly,” says Ehrlich. “This didn’t have to happen.”

Before the EEOC will take a case such as Nevins’, it sends its own investigators to study the complaint. Once investigators determine there’s a likelihood that illegal discrimination took place, Ehrlich says, “We lose our objectivity and become an advocate.”

EEOC lawyers then enter negotiations with the employer and attempt to reach an agreement, rather than go to court. If negotiations fail, as they did in the Nevins case, the EEOC files charges and assigns lawyers to the case, free of charge to the victim. The Nevins case was filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula.

The EEOC will now seek monetary compensation for Nevins, disciplinary action against the accused harassers, new company policies to prevent such incidents from occurring in the future, and reimbursement of lost wages, health-care benefits and other damages. Nevins has also retained Kalispell lawyer Santana Kortum-Managhan, who helped file federal and state charges against the company.

Nevins says just having the EEOC take his case gave him a feeling of vindication.

“It just felt good for someone to finally look at this and take it seriously and say, ‘something happened here.’”

But Nevins is one of only a handful of people who have gotten help from the EEOC in Montana in recent years.

In the last four decades, the EEOC had filed so few suits in Montana that Luis Lucero, a longtime lawyer for the commission, couldn’t remember the last one. Kortum-Managhan, the local lawyer handling Nevins’ case, and Katherine Kountz, chief of the Montana Human Rights Bureau, couldn’t either.

The Denver EEOC office, which until January oversaw enforcement in Montana, actually filed its most recent suit in 1999, against a construction company accused of sex discrimination. That suit was eventually settled. Before that, the Denver office had filed only 10 suits in the state, according to EEOC spokesperson James Ryan. Nationwide, by way of comparison, the EEOC has filed an average of 400 suits per year over the last five years.

Since January, when Ehrlich’s office was assigned to oversee Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho and Alaska, the San Francisco office has filed 41 suits, the most it has ever filed in a single year. Nevins’ case is the second filed against Oregon-based Les Schwab Tire Centers. Another suit filed in Washington by the San Francisco EEOC office charged the company with sex discrimination. According to the suit, in its 50 years of business, Les Schwab has promoted only one woman to the level of assistant manager.

The Independent could not reach a Les Schwab spokesperson for comment.

Ehrlich says her office plans to do more than just file suits in its new domain. She says there will also be stepped-up efforts to educate both employees and employers on the mandates of federal employment law.

In addition, the San Francisco office plans to begin conducting outreach to farm workers, advising them of their civil rights.

“There’s a tremendous amount of sex harassment of female farm workers,” Ehrlich says.

Her office recently won a nearly $1 million sexual harassment lawsuit on behalf of a California farm worker.

The overall message to employers, Ehrlich says, is that they need to start protecting their employees from discrimination with the same sense of mission with which they protect their stores from theft or fire.

“The civil rights act was passed 40 years ago. It’s about time [employers] stepped up to the plate,” she says.

ppeters@missoulanews.com

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