May 25, 2012 at 1:09 PM ET
Three African-American workers at a Siemens Energy facility in New Jersey have filed charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights after they said years of racial harassment recently culminated in their finding a noose hanging in front of their lockers.
"The complainants ... are pursuing these charges and will be filing a federal lawsuit in the hopes of bringing to light and changing the current climate of open racial discrimination at this facility," Brian K. Wiley, the lawyer representing the employees, said via email.
In January, four-year Siemens employee David Solomon said he entered the workers' changing area and found a noose hanging "right next to my locker." He photographed the noose and alerted his co-workers, Eddie Clarke and Barry Murphy. In an April 4 affidavit, all three testified that they had seen the noose and detailed numerous other instances of racial discrimination.
"I felt (as) though a clear message was being sent to the black employees at Siemens to shut up, do what your [sic] told and stop complaining about being treated unfairly or we would be lynched," Solomon wrote. "Every person in power at my job is white. There are no black supervisors, and no African-Americans to report this too [sic]."
Clarke wrote in his statement that he had been physically threatened by his supervisor after voicing complaints about a discriminatory work environment in which African-Americans were denied the opportunity for advancement. "My supervisor had previously warned me a few years back that if I complained of racial bias in the workplace any further I would get caught in 'friendly fire,' " he wrote. "The supervisor approached me shortly after and expressed surprise that I was 'still alive.”"
Siemens responded with a statement calling hanging a noose in the workplace a "deplorable, aggressive act" and said the company "promptly notified law enforcement." Company spokeswoman Camille Johnston said via email, "We have been in contact with federal, state and local authorities," without providing details of which agencies.
In its statement, Siemens said it initiated an internal investigation, which it concluded after the company's "corporate security team that included members with 30+ years of experience with the Federal Bureau of Investigation ... could not find any evidence of how the noose got there."
Wiley countered the assertion that Siemens proactively contacted police.
"To be clear, it was the complainants who contacted law enforcement to report what has happened to them," he said. "While we do not have the ability to know whether Siemens contacted law enforcement as they claim, we can say with certainty that none of the three victims was contacted by any law enforcement agency."
Between 2006 and 2010, the EEOC ordered eight companies to pay a total of nearly $5.2 million stemming from cases of racial discrimination or harassment that involved nooses. The agency's site says it is illegal for race or skin color to impact "hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment." It also says the display "racially offensive symbols" constitutes illegal racial harrassment.
"The company is responding to the EEOC charges as appropriate," Johnston said. An EEOC spokesman declined to comment.
Wiley said no specific amount of damages had been determined for the federal lawsuit he plans to file on behalf of the three men. "There's no real way to quantify" the impact that years — decades in the case of Murphy, a Siemens employee since 1966 — worth of denied advancement opportunities and hostile working conditions had on his clients. "[Siemens] conceivably could be responsible for a large amount," he said.