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In Florida's tough economy, worker discrimination complaints abound

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 trigaux@tampabay.com.

Employee-employer disputes all too common

A sampling of recent area court cases. Defendants declined to comment on pending legal cases. Some cases are settled confidentially.

Plaintiff: Brian Lane, Tampa

Defendant: Hillsborough Community College board of trustees

Allegation: Lane was a tenured HCC assistant physics professor when the president of HCC's Brandon campus fired him. According to Lane, the president claimed he was terminated for failing to teach a required lab class. Lane says the real reason he was fired was because Lane spoke out against union organization at HCC.

Status: Filed in May, pending.

Plaintiff: Sharvettye Frazier, Tampa

Defendant: Tampa's University of South Florida, board of trustees

Allegation: Frazier, who is black, was a 32-year-old certified athletic trainer who worked at USF's Sports Medicine and Athletic Related Trauma (SMART) Institute since 2006. She claims SMART's executive director selectively prohibited her from attending SMART-financed graduate school and circulated an altered picture of her that looks like she had a bone through her nose. After filing two EEOC complaints, she says USF began asking her to cut back her hours.

Status: Filed in April, pending.

Plaintiff: Marguerita Nanos

Defendant: CarMax dealership in Clearwater

Allegation: Now in her early 70s, Nanos claims she complained to management of unprofessional behavior by younger co-workers. But managers sided with the younger staff and urged Nanos to try harder to get along with them and began giving her negative reviews. She was later fired though she had earned an award for customer service. Nanos claims age bias.

Status: Filed in April, pending.

Plaintiff: Glen Surat

Defendant: Nielsen Media, Oldsmar

Allegation: Surat says his supervisor identified him as a "top talent" and on track for a leadership position. Surat thinks his age (now 58) and origins (he's from Trinidad with Indian ancestry) hurt his career prospects. He says things changed after the head of one of the company's cost-saving groups told the supervisor that Trinidadian Indians are members of the lowest Indian caste, or class. The supervisor allegedly decided against recommending Surat for the promotion.

Status: Filed in May, pending.

Plaintiff: Star Amber Demint

Defendant: Discount Auto Parts LLC, doing business as Advance Auto Parts

Allegation: Demint says she had been a part-time driver for nearly three years at the Pinellas Park store when her hours were cut. At first she was told it was a corporate cutback. Then Demint says she saw that two newly hired women in their 20s had taken her remaining hours. Demint says an assistant store manager told her they were "new eye candy." Her hours were later cut to zero. At 48, she says she was a victim of age discrimination.

Status: Filed in March.

Sources: Times research, BayLawsuits.com

Top states for discrimination complaints

EEOC discrimination complaints for 2011:

1

Texas 9,952

2

Florida 8,088

3

California 7,166

4

Illinois 6,098

5

Georgia 5,599

Source: U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

In Florida's tough economy, worker discrimination complaints abound 05/26/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 26, 2012 5:32am]

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