EEOC sues Walgreen, alleges bias

Many black store managers in Florida say they were put in low-income areas.

By Times staff, wire reports
Published March 8, 2007

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

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleged in a class-action lawsuit that Chicago-based Walgreen makes decisions about employee assignment and promotion based on race.

The EEOC action grew out of a case filed in East St. Louis, Ill., in 2005 that included allegations from more than a dozen Walgreens African-American store managers - many of them from Florida - who said their careers were undercut because the drugstore giant assigned them to run stores in black neighborhoods.

The stores were frequently in low-income neighborhoods, so the managers were denied the chance to earn far more lucrative performance bonuses available in higher profit stores in wealthier areas.

For instance, John Tucker, who in 15 years at Walgreens managed 10 stores from Jacksonville to Kansas City, was only twice assigned to run stores in predominantly white neighborhoods.

One assignment lasted eight months. The last one came after he filed for disability from the stress working a rough inner-city store, where he had been robbed at gunpoint once and was twice confronted by shoplifters with knives in the parking lot.

Five other Jacksonville store managers said their request for transfers out of low-income black neighborhoods were repeatedly denied.

One recalled his bosses told him Walgreens prefers managers live near their homes. Tucker was one of two African-Americans on a company list of 175 "emerging store leaders" under consideration for a district manager slot.

"It was pretty obvious I was assigned to work in predominantly black neighborhoods just because I was black," he told the St. Petersburg Times in 2005. "For years I just accepted it. I cannot anymore."

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, Detroit and Tampa. But EEOC officials in St. Louis said they have evidence of the same trend around the country.

Walgreen released a statement saying it is 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.

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

Times staff writer Mark Albright and the Associated Press contributed to this report.