Oak Harbor retailer focus of racial harassment complaint

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing Big 5 Sporting Goods after a former employee who is African American claimed he was harassed at the chain’s Oak Harbor store.

Robert Sanders alleges that the sporting goods retailer didn’t address his complaints about workplace harassment dating back to May 2014 and, in fact, retaliated against him after he reported incidences of harassment.

In a complaint filed against the corporation on July 20 in U.S. District Court in Seattle, Sanders claims that, while working as a management trainee, he was subjected to “frequent, offensive, and unwelcome race-based conduct.”

“I came prepared to work hard and put in my dues to become a manager,” Sanders said in a prepared statement released by the EEOC Commission. “But I was met with comments about my race: ‘You’re the perfect definition of ‘spook’ because your skin is so dark, but your teeth are so white.’ And it went downhill from there, to being taunted by another manager trainee about ‘ending up in a river, dead.’”

“Whidbey Island is a small place, and I didn’t want to leave my house,” said Sanders. “I felt like Big 5 took away my ability to not just succeed at work, but to simply live my life with dignity and without fear.”

Sander’s complaint also states that, on one occasion, an assistant manager held up box cutters and threatened to kill Sanders for calling in sick, reinforcing that threat by reportedly saying, “we will hang you” and “seriously lynch you.”

Sanders said he reported the incidents to the district supervisor and, in response, was denied work breaks and assigned more difficult and less desirable work, and the verbal harassment continued.

Sanders filed a complaint with the EEOC commission. On Aug. 25, 2016, a letter of determination was issued finding cause in the allegations.

The commission and corporation, which is based in El Segundo, Calif., attempted to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process, but did not reach an agreement, according to the press statement.

“The delay by Big 5 to take action to investigate and stop the racial harassment and retaliation is in­excusable,” said Nancy Sienko, field director for the Seattle office of the commission’s San Francisco District.

“The slurs and threats that Mr. Sanders faced have a terrible history and should never be tolerated. It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that all employees can work in a safe environ­ment free from racial hostility so they can succeed to their highest potential.”

The commission and Sanders are requesting a jury trial and are asking for a permanent injunction stopping Big 5 from engaging in further discriminatory employment practices. They are also asking that Big 5 be required to carry out “policies, practices and programs which provide equal employment opportunities for all and which eradicate the effects of its past and present unlawful employment practices.”

Sanders is also seeking compensation for “emotional pain, suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life, in amounts to be determined at trial,” as well as attorney fees and other costs incurred.

The Whidbey News-Times attempted to reach Big 5 representatives and were told by an operator Tuesday, “We are not making any comments on that. OK?”

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