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Walgreens suit cites racial bias

The lawsuit accuses the drugstore chain of steering black managers to stores in poor, predominantly black areas.

By MARK ALBRIGHT
Published June 21, 2005


Eleven current and former Walgreens employees filed a class-action suit on Monday alleging the drugstore chain discriminates against African-Americans in hiring, work assignment and promotion.

Filed in East St. Louis, Ill., the federal suit says the Deerfield, Ill., chain of 4,700 stores has systemically steered blacks to run stores in low-income neighborhoods where they are least likely to earn lucrative bonuses for their performance.

"It is stunning that in 2005 Walgreens black employees still face illegal segregation," said Kent Spriggs, a Tallahassee attorney who is co-counsel in the suit.

One of the 11 named plaintiffs is John Tucker, who in 15 years in store management at 10 Walgreens scattered from Jacksonville to Kansas City, Mo., was assigned only twice to run stores in predominantly white neighborhoods. The first assignment lasted eight months. The last one came after he filed for disability from the stress of working rough inner-city stores where he had been robbed at gunpoint once, chased off shoplifters and was twice confronted at knifepoint in the parking lot.

His district manager denied the transfer, but it went through after Tucker wrote a complaint to Walgreen Co. president Jeffrey Rein.

"It was pretty obvious I was assigned to work in stores in predominantly black neighborhoods just because I was black," said Tucker, 37. "For years I just accepted it. I cannot anymore."

He recalls being named among his division's "emerging store leaders" in line for a shot at district manager. Among 175 store managers on the list, two were African-American.

Walgreens officials declined comment, citing company policy of not responding to allegations made in pending lawsuits.

"But we do have zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind and strong policies promoting diversity," said company spokesman Michael Polzin. "We're surprised by these allegations because we have historically cared about equal opportunity for all employees."

A major element of the case is the experience of several black store managers in Jacksonville. Their requests for transfers out of five stores in low income, predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the city's north side were repeatedly denied, according to the lawsuit.

Black store manager Kevin Riddle was allegedly told his transfer was denied because Walgreens prefers managers to work near their homes.

When Riddle replied that he didn't live on the north side of Jacksonville, his district manager said it really was because Riddle was "better suited" to work there.

In Florida, Walgreens is neck and neck with CVS as the dominant drugstore chain.

Retail chains frequently use demographic data such as income, ethnicity and other buying habits to locate and stock their stores. The suit claims Walgreens executives also use such information to "steer" black store management prospects to stores that have been identified as "African-American stores."

Store management bonuses are based on sales and profitability. They often can double a store manager's annual pay. Yet, the suit alleges, a disproportionate number of black Walgreen store managers do not get the opportunity because the company has steered them to low-income neighborhoods most likely to have high levels of street crime and store theft. Hired security to make shoppers feel more comfortable comes out of profits. Stores in low-income neighborhoods also have more customer traffic to handle, but customers don't spend as much.

"I don't think they would have assigned a white female or a white male to some of the tougher stores I couldn't get out of," Tucker said. He said a white man replaced him at a store but got an extra cash incentive Tucker was denied.

"I should have the same chance of being assigned to the most profitable stores as anyone else," he said.

The suit seeks unspecified compensation and punitive damages for an undetermined number of African-Americans who were Walgreens store managers, assistant store managers, executive assistants or applied for such jobs dating to June 2001.

If granted class-action status, the lawsuit alleges the racial discrimination suffered by the 11 plaintiffs is representative of thousands of other African-Americans who worked at Walgreens in 45 states. The award, if any, would then be distributed among all members of the class and pay for the attorneys who handled the case.

--Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or 727 893-8252.

[Last modified June 21, 2005, 02:30:30]


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