Walgreens suit shows employment discrimination still a problem

Walgreens suit shows employment discrimination still a problem
By David A. Love

March 13, 2007

The recent lawsuit against Walgreens is a reminder that employment discrimination may still be a problem in our country.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently announced that it is suing Walgreens for alleged racial discrimination against its black employees, including its pharmacists and managers.

According to the suit, the Deerfield, Ill.-based drug store chain has made decisions on promotions based on race. Black managers have allegedly been assigned to stores in black neighborhoods and black employees have not been promoted to management, and within management, as often as similarly situated white employees, the EEOC claims.

In the end, the suit may represent more than 10,000 employees. Although most of the complaints come from Walgreens employees in St. Louis, Kansas City, Mo., Detroit and Tampa, Fla., the EEOC claims that there is evidence of problems in other parts of the country, as well.

Walgreens issued a statement, saying, "As a company with a history of commitment to fairness, diversity and opportunity, we are saddened and disappointed by the EEOC's decision. Our commitment is to providing opportunity to all employees -- not only because it is the right thing to do but because our business was built on this principle."

The EEOC was created through an executive order by President Kennedy, and it has an important purpose: to end employment discrimination in the United States on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability or age.

Walgreens is by no means the only corporation in this country facing charges of discrimination.

For example, more than 1.5 million women are estimated to be a part of a class-action suit against the retail giant Wal-Mart, the largest class action in history. The suit alleges that Wal-Mart discriminates against its female employees in making promotions, job assignments, training and pay decisions, and retaliates against women who complain against these practices.

A suit against Costco claims that the company operates a "glass ceiling" at the store-management level, allegedly blocking women from getting promoted to assistant manager and general manager positions.

And a former associate recently sued law firm Sullivan & Cromwell for allegedly facing retaliation and harassment from partners at the firm because of his sexual orientation.

Wal-Mart, Costco and Sullivan & Cromwell have all denied the charges.

Employment discrimination based on color -- lightness or darkness of skin complexion, shade or tone -- appears to be on the rise. The number of formal complaints to the EEOC of color discrimination increased from 374 in 1992 to
1,241 in 2006.

According to a University of Georgia survey, a light-skinned black man with a college degree and basic work experience would receive preference over a dark-skinned black man with an MBA and basic work experience.

And a recent study from Vanderbilt Law School, based on a government survey of immigrants from around the world, shows that those with the lightest skin earned an average of 8 percent to 15 percent more than similar immigrants with much darker skin.

The problem of employment discrimination can be traced to bad corporate culture. When companies pay lip service to diversity, engage in window dressing and do not devote the time and energy that is needed for real change, their insincerity shows. But when companies embrace and respect diversity -- and many do -- they are all the better for it.

For those executives who care solely about the bottom line, diversity makes good business sense as America's demographics shift. But companies should be compelled to do the right thing on moral and ethical grounds.

After all, it is the law.

David A. Love is a lawyer and writer based in Philadelphia. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.