BROOKSVILLE — A couple of weeks before Halloween, county Public Works employee Luke Sanders got into a fight with a co-worker. He was arrested, charged with battery and booked into the county jail.
Five days later, the 30-year-old maintenance worker filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging the county has failed to take action to ease the hostile work environment created by the co-worker's frequent racial harassment.
A mediation hearing is set for January, but county officials hope to broker a deal with Sanders to drop the complaint, said Cheryl Marsden, director of administrative services.
"We're trying to work to see if we can get it resolved before it goes that far," Marsden said.
Among the concessions the county hopes to make is to transfer Sanders, of Tampa, to a different position in the same department to separate him from the co-worker, 45-year-old Brooksville resident Baron Wood, an equipment operator.
Sanders could not be reached Wednesday afternoon.
Wood is not mentioned by name in the complaint. Sanders states that he notified supervisors in August 2010 that a "co-worker" was subjecting him to racial harassment.
"The employer investigated, but took no action, saying the accusation could not be substantiated," Sanders wrote.
Employees interviewed at the time did not corroborate Sanders' allegations, Marsden said.
In October 2010, the complaint states, the same co-worker shouted another racist insult and was given a written warning. According to Marsden, Wood was given a warning in November after an investigation found that he called Sanders "boy."
On Oct. 13 of this year, Sanders states in the complaint, the co-worker twice called him a racial slur.
According to a Brooksville Police report, two witnesses saw Sanders push Wood in an office of the Public Works headquarters on E Jefferson Street that morning. Sanders then began to kick Wood while he was on the ground, the witnesses said.
Sanders told police he didn't react the first time Wood called him the name. The second time, Sanders said, he pushed Wood, who then took a swing at him. Sanders said he then pushed Wood and held his face against the wall. He denied kicking Wood.
Police determined Sanders was the aggressor and arrested him. He was charged with two counts of misdemeanor battery, booked and released the same day on $1,000 bail.
Both men were suspended without pay for one week for having a physical altercation in the workplace, Marsden said.
"We felt that is wasn't just one-sided, so we decided to make it the same discipline for both," she said.
Sanders pleaded not guilty at his arraignment last month. His next court hearing is Dec. 15.
Employees can file a complaint if they suspect they've been discriminated against because of race, color, religion, gender, national origin, disability or age. Complaints are often addressed in mediation. If not, or if mediation fails, an EEOC investigator will take the case, according to the commission's website.
If an investigation finds a violation, the commission seeks a voluntary settlement with the employer. If that fails, the case goes to the commission's legal staffers to decide whether the agency should file a lawsuit. The employee can sue if the commission opts not to.
County officials should have taken firmer action against Wood to demonstrate that racial harassment will not be tolerated, said Paul Douglas, president of the Hernando County branch of the NAACP.
"They really didn't put their foot down and say, 'Cut this out,' " Douglas said. "The county should say, 'If we hear that word again, you're gone,' and they won't say that."
Sanders should have been fired that day for pushing him, Wood told the Times Wednesday.
Wood denies using the slur.
"I'm far from being racist, I'll tell you that right now," Wood said. "The problem lies with Luke Sanders. He's the one that's racist. He's had problems with a lot of people, and he's dealt the race card lots of times, and he threw it at me."
Racial discord has plagued another county department in recent years.
Staffers in the Utilities Department were reprimanded and lost their jobs over racial comments made to two workers in 2008. Those strained work relationships cost the county's insurance carrier tens of thousands of dollars in settlement money.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.