updated 6/21/2005 6:51:03 PM ET 2005-06-21T22:51:03

Eleven black current and former Walgreen Co. workers in Michigan and six other states sued the nation's top-selling drugstore chain Monday, accusing it of having a policy of discriminating against black employees.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in East St. Louis, Ill., says the company has a "pervasive policy" of steering black employees to work in stores in areas that have mostly black or poorer customers, using an internal system to categorize stores based on race and income.

The lawsuit, seeking class-action status, also says that black employees are denied advancement opportunities because the company directs them to its stores with worse profitability and work conditions, at times costing them bonuses often tied to store sales and gross profit.

"We're surprised by the allegations because historically we've cared about equal opportunity for all of our employees," said Tiffany Bruce, a spokeswoman for the Deerfield, Ill. company.

"We absolutely have zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind and strong policies promoting diversity throughout the company," she said.

The lawsuit says Walgreen engages in segregation of its black workers and seeks unspecified monetary damages and a court order permanently barring Walgreen from the questioned employment practices.

"We believe this is a nationwide pattern of discrimination in promotions, compensation and hiring" at Walgreen, said Tiffany Klosener, a Kansas City, Mo.-based attorney for the plaintiffs. "There are a lot more clients we have that are not named in the complaint."

The plaintiffs are from Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, Florida and Texas.

The lawsuit says the the plaintiffs have encountered racial discrimination at every level of management and that "blacks are routinely denied and passed over for promotions despite their seniority, work experience and/or qualifications," losing out to lesser-qualified whites.

Walgreen, which has more than 4,800 stores in 45 states and Puerto Rico, had sales last year of $37 billion.

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