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LOS ANGELES

by Hispanics in Hiring Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006 at 2:43 PM

discrimination lawsuits

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 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 0,000 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 0,000 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."

The situation is exacerbated by strong stereotypes that have set in among some employers about the pluses and minuses of hiring from each pool of minority workers. "There is a perception that Latinos closer to the immigrant experience might work harder than black persons," says Joe Hicks, who is African-American and vice president of Community Advocates, a nonpartisan group that aims to advance interracial dialogue.

John Trasvina, vice president for law and policy at the Mexican-American Defense League, an advocacy group that works on civil rights issues, says that some Latinos may be viewed as "preferred applicants." He believes there is a feeling among some employers that Latinos can be exploited because, in their view, they tend to be immigrants who are more likely to accept low wages and be less aware of their rights than blacks. Says Mr. Trasvina: "Employers sometimes pit one group of employees against the other."

California -- where Hispanic immigrants have been moving into black working-class pockets of the state's cities for decades -- is at the leading edge of this growing trend. As Latinos migrate eastward, to such states as Louisiana, Georgia and North Carolina, the competition with blacks for blue-collar jobs is likely to grow.

Hispanics have become the second-largest population group in the U.S. -- ahead of African-Americans but behind Caucasians -- thanks to the influx of immigrants from Latin America. In some cities, like Los Angeles, collaboration between African-American and Latino leaders is on the rise when it is mutually beneficial.

But as Latinos grab the attention of marketers and gain political clout, many African-Americans feel that their influence is waning, and that the decline is disproportionate and unfair.

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?"

Workers from all backgrounds -- whites, blacks, Asians and others -- use networks within their ethnic groups to find employment. Hispanic workers often bring in other family members or people from their neighborhoods or home regions to join them on a job. In sectors like construction, this can be an aid to employers who can tap their workers to help them find a fresh supply of laborers.

The flip side is that employers can become vulnerable to lawsuits if it's determined that they have been shutting out qualified applicants based on their race.

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 -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.

In the case of Farmer John Meats, the EEOC said that it found that the employer had an all-Hispanic hiring staff and recruited new hires by word of mouth.

One of the Latinos hired to work in Farmer John Meats instead of the black candidates had been a gardener, according to Ms. Park. Both discrimination lawsuits were brought against the employers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The message for employers is that "all individuals deserve to compete for jobs on a level playing field," she says.

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LATEST COMMENTS ABOUT THIS ARTICLE
Listed below are the 10 latest comments of 6 posted about this article.
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TITLE AUTHOR DATE
Cofused Confused Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006 at 5:37 PM
FJ is in the wrong johnk Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006 at 6:19 PM
basic life Monitor Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006 at 6:25 PM
We will need the health and labor of many to rebuild what is to come. ? Confused Thursday, Jan. 26, 2006 at 7:55 AM
confusion Monitor Thursday, Jan. 26, 2006 at 9:13 AM
Without the shackles of a job, the nation will find itself in a familiar position. Confused Thursday, Jan. 26, 2006 at 9:36 AM

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