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Walgreen accused by U.S. of bias in promoting staff

The drug chain assigns black managers to low-performing stores and makes decisions on advancement based on race, an EEOC suit says.

March 08, 2007|From the Associated Press

ST. LOUIS — The federal government Wednesday sued Walgreen Co., alleging widespread racial bias against thousands of black employees of the nation's largest drugstore chain.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleges in a class-action lawsuit that Deerfield, Ill.-based Walgreen makes decisions about employee assignment and promotion based on race.

Most of the complaints that led to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in East St. Louis, Ill., came from employees and former employees in St. Louis; Kansas City, Mo., Detroit and Tampa, Fla. But EEOC officials in St. Louis said they had found evidence of discrimination around the country.

Walgreen released a statement saying it was committed to "fairness, diversity and opportunity" and that it was "saddened and disappointed" by the EEOC action.

"Our commitment is to providing opportunity to all employees -- not only because it is the right thing to do but because our business was built on this principle," the statement said.

Calling itself the "nation's best-represented retailer in urban areas," Walgreen said that "managers of all backgrounds are promoted to senior levels from those locations."

The lawsuit alleges that Walgreen assigns black managers, management trainees and pharmacists to low-performing stores and to stores in black communities, and denies them promotions because of their race.

"Black managers are assigned to stores in black neighborhoods more often than one would expect, and black employees are not being promoted to management and within management as often as similar white employees," said EEOC regional attorney Robert Johnson in St. Louis.

Walgreen is the nation's largest drugstore chain by sales. It has more than 5,638 stores in 48 states and Puerto Rico. The company had sales of $47.4 billion in fiscal 2006.

The lawsuit followed an investigation by EEOC's St. Louis and Miami district offices into complaints from two dozen current and former employees from around the country, and after attempts to reach a voluntary settlement failed.

The claims are similar to those in a federal lawsuit filed in East St. Louis by many of the same black managers and employees in June 2005. That case is pending, and Johnson said the agency would ask the court to consolidate the cases.

The EEOC lawsuit, which alleges that Walgreen engaged in unlawful employment practices since at least Jan. 1, 2001, seeks back pay, compensatory and punitive damages and an end to the practices.

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