updated 3/7/2007 4:55:04 PM ET 2007-03-07T21:55:04

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 Walgreen, based in Deerfield, Ill., 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, Detroit and Tampa, Fla. But EEOC officials in St. Louis said they have found 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.”

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, based on 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. It had sales of $47.4 billion in the 2006 fiscal year.

The suit 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 private 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 will ask the court to consolidate the two cases immediately.

The lawsuit, which alleges 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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