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Worker: Bias Complaints Ignored

Aug 27, 2004 | Rocky Mountain News

A Home Depot sales associate who was fired after reporting widespread discrimination at a store in Thornton says the employee abuse was so extreme that he twice called the company's founder, but to no avail.

Gerald J. Thompson's complaints included being "traumatized" when he walked in on a sexual encounter involving the store manager and an employee.

Thompson now stands to receive one of the biggest individual payouts in a $5.5 million settlement resolving discrimination claims brought by former and current workers at the home-improvement chain's Colorado stores.

Attorneys for both Atlanta-based Home Depot and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Denver declined Thursday to comment on the prominent role Thompson's case played to end the EEOC's civil rights lawsuit and its statewide investigation against the retailer.

Pending a judge's approval, Thompson and 37 other workers will split $3 million. Thompson the only member of the group to have previously filed a discrimination lawsuit against Home Depot will get $250,000.

Home Depot will pay an additional $2.5 million to a special settlement fund, to be distributed among several hundred people who the EEOC said encountered discrimination while working at the company's 37 Colorado stores since January 2000.

Home Depot has denied it engaged in any workplace misconduct. The EEOC, adhering to terms of the settlement, has not disclosed specific allegations that accuse Home Depot of creating a hostile workplace based on gender, race and national origin at its Colorado stores.

But in his own federal lawsuit, Thompson said he personally spoke to Kenneth Langone, Home Depot's billionaire co-founder, more than four years ago about a white supervisor and store manager making racial comments that were directed against him and other minority workers.

Thompson, who is Hispanic, said he first met Langone at an employee event in Denver, and that Langone gave out his New York phone number, telling workers to call him about any unresolved problems with their store managers.

After phoning Langone for the first time, Thompson said Langone assured him that he would "look into the situation and take care of it."

Thompson's suit, however, states that no one got back to him and the workplace misconduct continued.

In a second call to Langone in December 2000, Thompson said he noted how cavalier management had become about the company's workplace rules: Thompson described walking in on the store manager having sex with a female employee on an office desk.

"Mr. Thompson was traumatized and completely shocked when he observed (the couple) engaged in sexual intercourse," according to his lawsuit, filed three years later in January 2003.

Thompson's lawsuit said he had previous run-ins with racial overtones with the store manager, so within days after witnessing "the Incident," called a toll-free company number for sexual harassment complaints.

In his last call to Langone, Thompson said he expressed his frustration that no one from Home Depot had followed up with him, even though he also had reported the alleged sexual encounter to a district manager.

He alleges in his lawsuit that he was fired the following month by the store manager after arriving one morning for work and forgetting to punch in his time card.

"The actions and inactions of Home Depot, its managers, supervisors and employees created a hostile work environment permeated with sexual harassment, race/national origin and Mexican ancestry discrimination that no reasonable person could endure," the complaint states.

Thompson, who started working in the lumber department in April 1999, initially earned $12 an hour. He filed an initial complaint with the EEOC in July 2001.

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