In Florida's tough economy, worker discrimination complaints abound

Published May 26 2012
Updated May 26 2012

More Americans than ever filed job discrimination claims last year. But Florida workers outpaced most of the country, registering 8,088 private sector complaints of workplace discrimination, harassment, retaliation and the like with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

That number made Florida No. 2 behind only Texas — and way ahead of larger California and New York — for the sheer number of EEOC complaints filed in 2011.

What made Florida such a workers' hell for so many, just behind Texas? It's no coincidence that both the Lone Star and Sunshine states boast minimal worker protection laws, with employers pretty much able to fire someone at will. California, almost twice the size of Florida in population, had fewer EEOC complaints because the state has extensive worker protection laws.

Some top Tampa Bay employment lawyers confirm the volume of worker complaints are up in the wake of a historic recession.

Wolfgang Florin, an attorney with Palm Harbor's Florin Roebig, a law firm very active in defending employees in workplace matters, says he is not surprised to see an uptick in the number of EEOC filings with the downturn in the economy.

"Our state has a large population of both older workers and minorities, both groups obviously protected by the civil rights laws," he says. The good news, Florin suggests, is that the large number of EEOC filings should decrease this year as people return to the workforce. The bad news, Florin says, is "the same discriminatory animus" seen so often in layoffs, termination and downsizing scenarios will now be present — and much harder to identify — in the hiring decisions around our state.

"The difference from a legal perspective is that it is much easier for employers to hide or mask discrimination in the hiring process than it is in the termination process," he says.

There's the rub. It would be unfortunate to cheer any decline in the overall reduction in workplace claims as the Florida economy improves if it really means discrimination is simply better disguised.

St. Petersburg labor and employment attorney Phyllis Towzey says she has seen more people filing EEOC charges or contacting lawyers after they have been terminated or suffered cutbacks in their work hours.

But she has not seen an actual uptick in viable discrimination cases. When companies lay off workers, those targeted look for reasons why they were chosen, she says. Often they believe it may have been based on age, race, disability or other protected status.

"More often, it's simply economics," Towzey says.

And she offers another scenario. With higher unemployment, employers may be less tolerant of workers who don't perform up to expectations. These days, it's much easier to fill positions with qualified (and even overqualified) individuals.

That's one reason so many workers are putting in the extra hours and even smiling at the boss more often these days.

By almost any measure, the Tampa Bay workplace is not lacking in acrimony. This past week's tale of Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner's admitting he sent dozens of pornographic emails to his human resources director, then fired her, is only the latest headline. In recent months, the area courts have been awash in worker lawsuits ranging from allegations of sexual harassment (most often women working in restaurants, it seems), employee loss of freedom of speech, racial, age and ethnic discrimination, and retaliation by management.

Workplace lawsuits often are settled out of court. Frequently, those settlements are confidential. When 15 older employees were laid off at Superior Uniform in Seminole, they sued the company in 2010 for age discrimination. The suit was settled confidentially.

Other cases grab national attention. Tampa's OSI Restaurant Partners, parent of the Outback Steakhouse restaurant chain, was ordered in 2010 to pay $19 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the EEOC alleging that company systematically stymied women from advancing to lucrative management ranks.

Florida's landed at No. 2 in EEOC complaints for three years in a row. Let some other state rise in the ranks in 2012.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]

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