Friday, February 17, 2006


A reader wrote the other day in response to a Drunkablog post that included a tiny diss of the Denver Post's business columnist, Al Lewis. The reader, who is intensely and often irritated by Al (not unusual among his readers), wondered if the gray-livered one would write more about him.

But like Lewis, the Drunkablog is a journalist (when convenient), and as such he tries to be at least somewhat familiar with a colleague's work before he picks on that colleague. Often he will even go to the trouble of reading a column (sometimes two!) and finding a bad picture of said colleague. Journalists call this "research," and while we don't really have to do it, the Drunkablog always goes the extra mile.

So naturally I ran across Lewis' column from last Sunday, "Suit alleges a warehouse of horrors." It's pretty interesting:
Eventually, Matthew Ricks got tired of the writing on the walls.

Racial epithets. Profane insults. Swastikas. Depictions of black and Hispanic men hanging by nooses.

"I don't even know how to describe the feelings," the 33-year-old warehouse worker said about seeing hatred on bathroom walls and equipment at work.

"The only good (slur) is a dead (slur)," Ricks said, reciting one of the phrases. "That's a terrorist threat in my opinion."

Ricks, who is both black and Native American, said he has worked fearfully amid these conditions since he was hired in 1995, although the abuse has lessened with each federal complaint. . . .

Federal complaints? What federal complaints? The story continues:

"I would come home and cry sometimes, feeling that the world was worthless," he told me. "I would even cry in front of my son sometimes."

Ricks' allegations are enumerated in a lawsuit that he filed last week against his employer, the Albertsons grocery chain, in U.S. District Court in Denver.

Ricks claims supervisors intimidated him and gave him less desirable assignments. He also claims his bosses addressed him with racial slurs themselves. . . .

Ricks told me he eventually had a panic attack at work, leading to disability leave from August 2004 to February 2005. He received treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. . . .

The case has drawn attention from Alvertis Simmons, 49, an organizer of the 1995 Million Man March on Washington, D.C. (Simmons has legal problems of his own, including a recent forgery charge stemming from a security business. He has pleaded not guilty.) Simmons said he has spoken about Ricks' case to Chicago minister Jeffrey Muhammad, Millions More Movement coordinator.
Oh boy! Alvertis Simmons! There's also an interesting NYT article on Jeffrey Muhammad (who is a minister of the Nation of Islam, Al fails to note), detailing how a grand jury declined to indict him for aggravated kidnapping. Lewis continues:
The minister told me if the allegations are true, he will support Simmons, who is considering a national boycott of Albertsons. "It makes you go back 100 years," the minister said of the allegations.

"This is Black History Month," Simmons said. "Don't take us backwards. We want to go forward. But Albertsons, you are taking us backwards."
Pretend you're a reasonable person for a minute. Do you believe Ricks' story? I don't. Not that it's necessarily a total lie, but it just goes against common sense. For one thing, Ricks claims he has endured this harrassment since 1995. Why? For another, all Al gets from Albertson's is a basic
We take all allegations of workplace discrimination very seriously," Albertsons spokeswoman Shannon Bennett said. "We thoroughly investigate and respond to all allegations that are brought to our attention." Beyond that, Bennett said she could not discuss Ricks' case.

The EEOC has determined that there is probable cause to believe that the charges of Mr. Ricks are true," the lawsuit reads. "EEOC has further advised the parties that it intends to bring a class-action suit against Albertsons."

The class action would involve at least 200 people, the suit states. An EEOC spokeswoman declined to comment.

Now that sounds like they must have something, but what? And what happened with those federal complaints? The harrassment of Ricks lessened, Lewis says, but is that because the complaints were found to be valid, people were disciplined and Albertsons' changed its procedures? Lewis doesn't say. But the involvement of Simmons and Muhammad is hardly reassuring.

The responses to Al's story on his "blog" (in "Al's mailbag") are generally skeptical, too. One begins:
Congratulations on your column of Sunday, February 12 in the Post. You have clearly established a new low in journalistic integrity. Even for you, this was an astonishing achievement in the malignant slander and malicious smearing of a defenseless target.
Albertsons, defenseless? I guess so, because the second letter reads, in its entirety:
Having worked in Personnel/H.R. for quite awhile, I don’t “buy” Ricks’ story. If true, since 1995, all his managers and the H.R. people for Albertson’s, have been incredibly stupid; that is most unlikely. I’m waiting for the “It’s not about the money” disclaimer, which should be coming soon? Simmons being in the mix, makes the story even more suspect. He strikes me as one of those guys, that if you shake hands with him; you’d better count your fingers!
But here's another HR person who does "buy" Rick's story, or at least considers it highly possible:


I’ve read your article and I’ve been an HR professional for 15+ years. . . . I don’t have any direct evidence that Mathew Ricks’ allegations are true or false but I can tell you they are entirely possible even in this day and age. If ethics and compliance training is not taught and talked about on a regular basis and the desired behaviors are not modeled, human beings can and do cross engage in unacceptable behavior at work.

Now that sounds like an "HR professional."

In any case, unless the class action suit goes forward, we're probably never going to hear Albertsons' side of things. Lewis reports in today's column that the grocery chain will cave quietly to Ricks and Simmons' demands:

Albertsons spokeswoman Shannon Bennett told me the company flew a team of executives into Denver "to open up a dialogue." She previously told me the company takes all such allegations seriously and investigates them thoroughly. . . .

Simmons told me Albertsons sent four executives: two vice presidents and two consultants, all African-American.

"The conversations have been meaningful and respectful," Simmons said. "This thing is going to get resolved. . . . When we finish with these negotiations, people are going to be proud of what we did."


Update: Oh, here's the bad picture of Lewis.

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