Former Sacramento-area Target employees claim racial discrimination, humiliation—and have paperwork to prove it

Multibillion-dollar corporation made national headlines last week with wrongful-termination, discrimination and harassment suit

A lawsuit filed by three Sacramento-area former Target employees, who are suing the company over wrongful termination and harassment, went viral online last week.

A lawsuit filed by three Sacramento-area former Target employees, who are suing the company over wrongful termination and harassment, went viral online last week.

Independent reporting for this story is funded by a grant from Sacramento Emergency Foodlink.

In target practice, the Spanish term for the bull’s-eye is el blanco. But according to former employees at a Target warehouse in nearby Woodland, it was the Latinos who were consistently in the supervisors’ crosshairs.

The multibillion-dollar superstore corporation made national headlines last week when a wrongful termination, discrimination and harassment suit came to light that included, as evidence, a company document riddled with racist undertones.

While that document certainly plays a role in the case, it portrays just one dimension of the unfriendly, racially tiered work environment, as described by the three Hispanic plaintiffs.

According to the lawsuit, Robert N. Gonzalez, Fabian Bulmaro and Pedro Garcia-Ayala regularly dealt with racially charged comments from warehouse supervisors—such as, “What the hell? I’m already sweating like a Mexican,” and “Only a ’wetback’ can work this hard”—while working in Target Corporation’s Woodland distribution warehouse.

“It was directed straight toward me,” said Gonzalez, 59, of the times he heard others speaking like that. “They would look straight at me and just laugh.

“It was humiliating.”

Gonzalez had been working at Target for seven years when, in 2011, he started to speak up.

“Every time I felt like it was out of hand, I’d go to human resources,” he said. “They’d take notes and say, ’OK, just get back to work, and I’ll check into this.’”

But they never checked into it, he says, and his treatment grew worse.

According to the lawsuit, Gonzalez’s “supervisors became more hostile and abusive” toward him, with one manager “using more racial epithets when instructing [him] on his work” and “purposefully [throwing] boxes on the ground and then [ordering] Gonzalez to pick them up in an attempt to humiliate [him] amongst his colleagues.”

As a last-ditch effort, Gonzalez contacted Target’s corporate human-resources department, based in Minnesota, to talk about his treatment. But the lawsuit says that, again, the reports went uninvestigated.

Target fired Gonzalez in May 2011—just five months after his initial complaint—citing performance reasons, and Fabian and Garcia-Ayala were out the door within the next 15 months. All three men believe their terminations were based on being “Hispanic, Mexican” employees, as stated in the lawsuit.

According to the former employees, the distribution center largely employed white people for supervisor and manager positions, while manual-labor jobs went to minorities.

The lawsuit describes a workplace in which the Mexican-American plaintiffs “were expected to work harder than their Caucasian counterparts and were not given the same overtime opportunities throughout the terms of their employment.”

“From our perspective, it possibly shows that there was some type of dual system going on,” said Ilija Cvetich, whose law firm is representing Gonzalez and his former colleagues.

That’s not much of a stretch, given a racially charged document, distributed to warehouse managers, that gives tips on how to deal with Hispanic employees. Excerpts from this document went viral online this past week.

Titled “Organization Effectiveness, Employee and Labor Relations Multi-Cultural Tips,” it explains that not all Hispanics “eat tacos and burritos” or wear sombreros. It goes on to discern Mexicans from other Hispanic communities with the description “Mexicans (lower education level, some may be undocumented).”

In a section on building Hispanic employees’ trust, the document says that Hispanics are “very loyal to those whom they have grown to trust,” and advises that “[for] Hispanics, family is the highest priority, everything else, including work, is secondary.”

“[L]ook for ways to take advantage of these strong familial tendencies as a source of motivation in the workplace.”

Most of this document appears to come, often verbatim, from an 11-year-old report funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service’s Wood Education and Resource Center in Princeton, W.Va., and written by a group called Holladay Management Services Inc., which seems to have dissolved. Though not as racially charged as the Target document, this report also has its moments, including a portion on the value of generalizing when discussing Hispanic cultures, which states, “The use of generalization is a valuable tool in helping us to better understand and predict the behaviors of a group of people.”

“When that paper came into our hands—wow,” said Gonzalez of the Target document. “How I felt, what I went through, it all backed up my suspicions.”

Target representative Molly Snyder sent SN&R an email apology. “This document, which was used during an isolated conversation about diversity, was never part of any formal or company-wide training and was a mistake. We are sorry.” She did not respond to follow-up questions.

Beyond voicing surprise in finding that Target acknowledged that the document was real, Cvetich said that there’s little else to say on the case at the moment. His firm isn’t scheduled to meet Target in Yolo County court until mid-October, so national attention is expected to wane.

Gonzalez wouldn’t mind that.

“It was a simple step that we had to take—just talk to an attorney. But somehow, it exploded into what it is,” Gonzalez said. “It’s overwhelming.”

The three men are suing Target Corporation for an undisclosed amount. When asked by others about the monetary implications of taking on the big-box chain (which raked in an estimated $73.3 billion in 2013 revenue), Gonzalez doesn’t take the bait.

“We suffered there,” he said. “It’s about more than the money.”