Suits allege discrimination at timber giant
Sierra Pacific hit for ethnic, religious discrimination
The abuse began right after 9/11, Ahmed Elshenawy says.
From that day on, Elshenawy, who worked as a grader and sorter at Sierra Pacific Industries’ Red Bluff Mill Works Division, felt like a marked man. On an almost daily basis, his co-workers began calling him such epithets as “Saddam,” “Arabian,” “stupid Egyptian,” “Osama” and “sand jockey.”
When Elshenawy reported this treatment to his superiors, they allegedly failed to take action, and the abuse continued unabated. In fact, according to a press release from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Sierra Pacific subjected Elshenawy to disproportionately harsh treatment and fired him after four years of employment due to his Egyptian national origin and in retaliation for protesting the harassment.”
After first attempting to reach a voluntary settlement, the EEOC filed suit against Sierra Pacific on June 25 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California. The suit charges the giant forest-products company with violating federal law when it allowed the harassment and also by firing Elshenawy in retaliation for reporting the discrimination. The suit seeks back pay and other monetary losses, compensatory and punitive damages and appropriate injunctive relief to prevent any future discrimination.
It’s the second discrimination lawsuit the EEOC has filed against Sierra Pacific in the past year. In September 2007, the agency filed suit charging religious discrimination at its Oroville mill.
Elshenawy was born in Egypt but is a naturalized U.S. citizen and the father of three children. EEOC officials won’t allow him to speak with reporters while the lawsuit is pending, but he was quoted in the press release as follows: “Facing regular abuse from co-workers wears on your mind and spirit. But when the company ignored my complaints and instead retaliated against me, it was devastating. Their actions struck at my ability to support my family. I am thankful that the EEOC has taken my case.”
His situation is far from unique. Between Sept. 11, 2001, and March 11, 2008, the EEOC filed 1,016 charges nationwide alleging post-9/11-backlash employment discrimination.
“The Sept. 11 attacks, as terrible as they were, are no excuse for tolerating a climate of fear and hatred,” said the EEOC’s San Francisco-based district director, Michael Baldonado. “The EEOC upholds the laws that ensure that no one should have to endure racial or ethnic abuses at the workplace—and that no one should be fired for standing up to it.”
Sierra Pacific Industries is a family-owned business based in Anderson, with numerous satellite sites (mills, cogeneration plants, etc.) elsewhere in Northern California and in Washington state. According to its Web site (www.spi-ind.com), it is California’s largest private landowner, with some 1.7 million acres, and the second-largest lumber producer in the United States. In March, its co-founder, president and CEO, 79-year-old A. A. “Red” Emmerson, was ranked 573rd on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people with a net worth of $2.1 billion.
Ironically, just a week before the lawsuit was filed, on June 17, Red Emmerson was one of the eight inaugural inductees into the new California Hall of Fame at a gala ceremony at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis, joining such luminaries as winemakers Ernest and Julio Gallo, Raley’s store founder Tom Raley, Stockton mega-developer Alex Spanos, and Chico’s own Dr. Newton Enloe, the founder of Enloe Medical Center.
The discrimination that allegedly occurred at SPI’s Oroville mill involved a man named Luciano Cortez, who had worked there for four years, along with more than 100 other employees, manufacturing wood fencing.
Cortez is a Seventh-day Adventist and celebrates his sabbath from sundown on Friday until sundown Saturday. But when Cortez asked management for work shifts that would not conflict with his sabbath, Sierra Pacific allegedly fired the 38-year-old man for his inability to work Friday evenings.
“Work is very important, but it is more important to obey God,” Cortez said, according to a press release. “The fourth commandment of the law of God is that I not work on the sabbath. I need to fulfill my obligations to God and my religion, but with my work I could not.”
According to the EEOC, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for sincerely held religious beliefs unless it would cause undue hardship to the business.
“Providing Mr. Cortez with a work schedule that would accommodate his religion should not be a problem for a company as large as Sierra Pacific, which has over 4,000 employees and revenues well over a billion dollars annually,” said William R. Tamayo, EEOC regional attorney.
The suit, which was filed after settlement negotiations proved fruitless, seeks back pay and other monetary losses, compensatory and punitive damages for Cortez, and appropriate and injunctive relief to prevent any future discrimination.
Mark Pawlicki, the media spokesman for Sierra Pacific, said the fact that the company didn’t settle the lawsuits indicates that it denies fault in the cases. “We have very strong policies involving equal employment and sexual harassment,” he said. “They’re very important to us and we enforce them.”
Any employee who feels discriminated against can go to his or her supervisor as well as to the company’s equal-employment/affirmative-action officer, he said.
Both cases are still pending, Tamayo said, and no court dates have been set.