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Chicago Nike Store Accused of Racial Discrimination in Suit

Aug 24, 2004 | Knight Ridder

The Niketown store on Chicago's Magnificent Mile discriminated against African-American employees by segregating them into jobs in the stockroom and denying them promotions to higher-paying sales positions, claims an amended federal lawsuit filed Monday.

The store, owned by Nike Inc., one of the world's largest athletic footwear makers, employed 63 stockroom workers between January 2001 and May 2003, the suit said. Of those, 46 were African Americans and three were Caucasian. The starting hourly wage was less than $8 an hour, the suit said.

During that same time period, eight of the 33 "commissioned sales specialists" were African American and 23 were Caucasian. The sales specialists often earned three to four times as much as a stockroom employee, the suit said.

Lawyers for the 15 plaintiffs, who are current and former Niketown employees, are seeking class-action status for their claims, covering up to 200 people.

The plaintiffs are seeking an unspecified amount of damages that includes lost wages and benefits. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago.

Officials at Nike, based in Beaverton, Oregon, did not return phone calls.

The plaintiffs also contend that even though many worked 40 hours a week, they were not considered fulltime employees and therefore were denied benefits such as paid vacation and health and dental insurance.

In addition, the plaintiffs claimed that they were subject to a racially hostile work environment. Among the allegations: African Americans workers were repeatedly accused of theft and when leaving the store their belongings were searched. They claimed that Caucasian employees were not subject to the same working conditions. Work rules concerning attendance, sick leave and employee discounts were also unequally applied, the suit said.

The lawsuit also includes allegations that African-American customers were followed around the store.

Despite complaints of harassment to numerous managers, Nike failed to respond, the suit said.

The original complaint was filed last December by two former employees who tried to represent themselves. A district court judge later assigned the case to Noelle Brennan, a former attorney with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission now in private practice.

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