SPI reaches settlement

Employee alleged racial harassment; SPI says employee fired for sexual harassment issues

George L. Winship, Editor

Anderson-based Sierra Pacific Industries, which owns and harvests forests in California and Washington, will pay $95,000 to settle a federal discrimination lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency announced today.

In competing press releases, however, SPI officials remain adamant the former employee was fired because of continued sexual harassment claims made against him by co-workers at the company’s window and door fabrication facility in Red Bluff.

The EEOC’s lawsuit charged that, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and continuing until his April 2004 discharge, Sierra Pacific allowed co-workers to harass Ahmed Elshenawy, a worker of Egyptian national origin.

The co-workers allegedly called Elshenawy names such as “Osama,” “f---ing Arabian,” and “camel jockey,” the EEOC release said.

Elshenawy complained to SPI officials and was thereafter subjected to complaints made by co-workers, according to the EEOC lawsuit.

Further, the EEOC said, the company retaliated against Eshanaway by subjecting him to harsher discipline, ultimately terminating him.

However, Mark Pawlicki, director of government affairs for SPI, said Tuesday, Oct. 23, that the company stands by its decision in April 2004 to terminate Elshenawy, who was accused by three different SPI employees of sexual harassment in the workplace.

“Sexual harassment is something we take very seriously,” said Kendall Pierson, Vice President of SPI’s Millwork and Window Divisions in Red Bluff.

“We will not tolerate it in our company and will terminate employees who have harassed others,” he added.

Discrimination based on national origin violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law also strictly prohibits retaliation against employees who report such discrimination.

After an investigation by EEOC Investigator Scott Doughtie and first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through conciliation, the EEOC filed a lawsuit on June 25, 2008, (Civil Action No. 08-00710) in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California.

The consent decree settling the suit was approved by Judge Kendall J. Newman of U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of California in Sacramento (Civ. No. CV-01470-MCE).

Sierra Pacific denied the allegations, but agreed to pay $95,000 in damages to Elshenawy.

“Sadly, the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) intervened on behalf of Mr. Elshenawy and alleged that SPI fired him because he is Egyptian,” Pawlicki stated in response to the EEOC press release.

“SPI vehemently denied that allegation from the very beginning and cited sexual harassment as the reason for the termination. It is unsettling that the EEOC decided to pursue a case of retaliatory discrimination despite the illegal actions of the plaintiff,” Pawlicki wrote.

“It is truly a sad day when a government agency accuses a company of something that is totally false and unsubstantiated,” said Pierson.

“SPI did not discriminate against Mr. Elshenawy due to his national origin. We fired him because he violated federal and state laws and our company policy against sexual harassment,” noted Pierson, who added that Elshenawy was previously convicted of battery in Tehama County and of “making, possessing, and uttering fictitious instruments” for trying to pass counterfeit $100 bills in four Northern California casinos.

Elshenawy, who served in the U.S. Army after his firing from Sierra Pacific, expressed his satisfaction with the settlement.

“I will never forget the mistreatment I suffered just because of where I come from,” Elshenawy said. “The EEOC showed me that laws protect workers from discrimination.”

In addition, the two-year decree provides that Sierra Pacific Industries will conduct yearly training of employees, report the details of any future complaints of national origin discrimination or retaliation, revise its anti-discrimination policies and post information regarding the decree for current employees.

Pawlicki countered, stating, “SPI was not found to be at fault in the case brought by Mr. Elshenawy and the EEOC. SPI only agreed to settle the case in order to stop spending money and to free the courts of a merit-less case. The settlement dismisses all claims of discrimination and wrongful termination and allows SPI to continue to aggressively pursue action against employees who have sexually harassed fellow employees.”

EEOC San Francisco Regional Attorney William R. Tamayo said, “The EEOC is pleased with this settlement and commends Sierra Pacific for its cooperation in resolving this case. We also thank Mr. Elshenawy for having the courage to report this discrimination.”

EEOC San Francisco District Director Michael Baldonado added, “The training and reporting requirements that the company has agreed to in the consent decree will help prevent similar cases from arising in the future. Settlements such as this one result in positive changes which benefit everyone in the workplace.”

SPI owns and manages nearly 1.9 million acres of timberland in California and Washington and is the second largest lumber producer in the United States. The company also operates small- and large-log sawmills in both states as well as the door and window plant in Red Bluff, Pawlicki said.

The EEOC enforces laws in the private and federal sectors prohibiting employment discrimination. Additional information about the EEOC is available online at http://www.eeoc.gov.

© 2012 Anderson Valley Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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