Eugene Gates Jr. had worked in a Charlotte, N.C., grocery store for nearly 40 years when it was purchased by Compare Foods, based in Freeport, N.Y. Shortly after the buyout, Compare cut his hours in half and gave his shifts to a young Hispanic worker. Compare told Gates that the company needed someone who could relate to the store’s Hispanic customers. Gates resigned.
A month later, two other workers in the department were fired. Gates joined them in an EEOC suit that alleged race and national origin discrimination.
Compare settled the lawsuit for $40,000, but maintained the workers were treated fairly. Company attorney Phil Van Hoy argued that under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a business can require employees to have certain qualifications if it can prove a business necessity. If you have a Hispanic customer base, Van Hoy said, it’s legal “to have enough of your employees who can communicate with them.”
It’s a tough sell, and one the EEOC evidently didn’t buy.
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