Feds Cut Way Back On Probes Of Worker Harassment, Discrimination Cases

EEOC files fewer lawsuits

When it comes to enforcing the nation's labor laws, the agency responsible for investigating charges of discrimination and harassment has no shortage of work. Workers routinely file complaints with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which then investigates them and decides whether to bring suit against employers on workers' behalf.

During the past seven months or so, however, the EEOC has begun taking a leaner approach, filing far fewer lawsuits. In fiscal 2012, which ended Sept. 30, the agency brought just 122 cases, according to the Seyfarth Shaw law firm, less than half the 261 cases it filed during the previous fiscal year.

Faced with limited resources, the EEOC says it's focusing on hiring-discrimination cases and those involving vulnerable workers, such as immigrants and low-wage workers.

The EEOC's decision has both upsides and downsides for workers, says Laura Hertzog, director of diversity and equal employment opportunity programs at Cornell University. In the past, some critics have complained that the EEOC was suing on behalf of those who had sufficient resources to hire their own attorneys -- such as professionals in the banking industry -- to combat workplace discrimination.

"So you can see why [the EEOC] decided to see what it would be like to focus more on people who weren't as educated, who weren't professionals [or] who didn't speak English as their first language -- a more vulnerable population."

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The problem is, Hertzog says, the substantial drop in the number of cases may send a message to employers that the EEOC won't be as aggressive and companies need not be as careful about following labor laws.

"I think it's human nature that if you are someone who is being regulated and you notice that your chance of being caught is now less than 50 percent -- broadly speaking -- than it was a year ago, you may be less likely to be careful," she says.

Though there were fewer of them in 2012, the EEOC nonetheless settled several significant cases. Sexual harassment was the most common type of workplace complaint that led to an employer paying a sizable settlement or jury award, according to eBossWatch, an employer-rating site.

Employers paid out $356 million in 2012 to settle workplace discrimination and harassment lawsuits, including 58 related to employee disabilities, 56 based on race and 47 for retaliation, among others.

Here are the top 10 largest workplace harassment or discrimination lawsuit settlements and judgments from the past 12 months, according to eBossWatch:

10. AT&T (Kansas City, Mo.) will pay $5 million in a religious discrimination lawsuit judgment.

9. Sears (Sacramento, Calif.) will pay $5.2 million in a race discrimination lawsuit judgment.

8. Aaron's Inc. (Fairview Heights, Ill.) will pay $6 million in a sexual harassment judgment.

7. Lennox Industries (Richardson, Texas) will pay $6.2 million to settle an age discrimination lawsuit.

6. Cook County (Chicago) will pay $7.6 million in a race discrimination lawsuit judgment.

5. Tesoro Refining and Marketing Co. (Los Angeles) will pay $8.5 million in a disability discrimination lawsuit judgment.

4. YRC/Yellow Transportation (Chicago Ridge, Ill.) will pay $11 million after a consent decree was entered in federal court ending an EEOC race harassment and discrimination lawsuit.

3. Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (Chicago) will pay $18.3 million in an age discrimination lawsuit judgment.

2. ArcelorMittal (Buffalo, N.Y.) will pay $25 million in a race discrimination lawsuit judgment.

1. Mercy General Hospital (Sacramento, Calif.) will pay $168 million in a sexual harassment lawsuit judgment.

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