Racial harassment lawsuits at work go up

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says it is filing several racial harassment lawsuits a year involving hangman's nooses in workplaces, a trend agency officials say coincides with rising numbers of racial harassment complaints.

The noose, a symbol of violence against blacks, was recently in the news because of the national attention surrounding the Jena 6 case in Jena, La.

Since fiscal year 2001, the EEOC has filed more than 30 lawsuits that involve the displaying of nooses on the job. Some have resulted in settlements topping $1 million. The latest settlement, for $290,000, came Thursday.

Racial harassment complaints filed with the agency have more than doubled the past 17 years, from 3,075 in fiscal year 1991 to about 7,000 in 2007.

"It's time for Corporate America to be more proactive in preventing and eliminating racist behavior in the workplace," EEOC Chairwoman Naomi Earp said.

Thursday's settlement grew out of a lawsuit against Helmerich & Payne International Drilling, filed in Jackson, Miss. The EEOC alleged nooses were displayed on a rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

Helmerich & Payne spokesman Steve Mackey says the company investigated and doesn't know if its own employees or those working for other companies using the rig were responsible.

Among other cases:

• In May, the agency reached a $390,000 racial harassment settlement with Pemco Aeroplex in Birmingham, Ala., on behalf of a class of black employees. The EEOC says employees at the company were subjected to racist graffiti and the display of nooses.

Felicia Banks, 35, who is African-American, quit in 2004. "I had no idea they would go that extreme with prejudice," says Banks, in Maylene, Ala. "I was very offended."

Pemco officials declined to comment on the settlement.

• The EEOC in January settled a racial harassment lawsuit for $600,000 against AK Steel's aks facility in Butler, Pa. The EEOC alleges a noose was displayed and Ku Klux Klan videos were shown in employee lounges.

AK Steel spokesman Alan McCoy says the settlement did not acknowledge breaking laws, and the existence of any noose was not reported to management.

• In March 2006, the EEOC reached a settlement of more than $1 million in a racial harassment lawsuit against Commercial Coating Service of Conroe, Texas. It alleged that a black employee was subjected to racial epithets, and in one incident white co-workers placed a noose around his neck. The company did not return calls for comment.

Jena 6 refers to six black teens charged with beating a white teen in 2006. The beating came after white students hung nooses from a tree at the high school.