Construction company Whiting-Turner will pay $1.2 million to Black former workers to settle a race harassment and retaliation lawsuit levied by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The suit was focused on the company's work as the prime contractor for the construction of the Google data center in Clarksville, Tennessee.
The EEOC case said that Black employees were often referred to as "boy," "m****f*****" and "you." Buildings and porta potties had racially offensive graffiti that referenced KKK and white power, and a noose was displayed in the workplace on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
At least two Black men were placed at the site through a temporary staffing agency and subsequently assigned to an “all-Black sub-crew” that was frequently given the most physically challenging and least-desirable jobs. According to the complaint, they were told to “get ya black asses back to work.” When one of the employees complained to a supervisor, he was reportedly told to “let it go” because the White crew leader was “old-fashioned.”
The employees reported the issues to Whiting-Turner multiple times, but the construction firm failed to investigate them. Instead, it fired two of the employees that complained.
Alongside the settlement, Chief District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr. ruled that Whiting-Turner must incorporate a strict prohibition against racial graffiti, racial jokes, racial slurs, racial epithets, and hate symbols into its anti-harassment policy. It will also have to assign an EEO liaison to each construction site and conduct semi-annual training on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
"The allegations in the Whiting-Turner matter are a prime example of the urgent need for the EEOC’s ongoing efforts to eliminate racism in the construction industry," EEOC Chair Charlotte A. Burrows said.
"I am pleased that the Memphis District Office secured meaningful changes to the employer’s practices and monetary relief for Black workers harmed by the discriminatory conduct. Unfortunately, the shocking findings of the EEOC’s investigation, in this case, are not an isolated occurrence in the industry. The EEOC will continue to use all its tools - from outreach to vigorous enforcement and litigation - to address these systemic problems."
Tim Regan, president and CEO of Whiting-Turner, told DCD in a statement: “We are pleased to resolve this matter with the EEOC confirming no admission of liability or wrongdoing by Whiting-Turner. Whiting-Turner has denied liability or wrongdoing from the beginning of this case and we are proud of our efforts to combat discrimination and to promote diversity and inclusion within the company and on our job sites. While there was no credible evidence that any Whiting-Turner employees were involved in the actions alleged, a monetary settlement was reached in order to avoid the cost and expense of a protracted trial.”
Racism continues to be a serious issue at data center construction sites in the US. In 2020, a noose was found at a Facebook construction site in Iowa; two days later a racist song was played over the radio at a nearby Microsoft project. Both were Turner Construction developments (which is not related to Whiting-Turner).
A few months later, Turner paused work on Meta's Ohio facility following the discovery of racist graffiti, and similar messages were found twice at Turner's Meta's data center construction site in Nebraska.
A 2021 Washington Post report found that dozens of nooses have shown up at US construction sites across different sectors, with few consequences for the culprits.