Businessman haunted by dealings with EEOC

MIKE ROYKO

October 01, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

The reader jogged my memory. "What ever happened to that small businessman who owned the lamp company? The one the government was crucifying for not hiring enough minorities?"

He was talking about the nightmarish case of Mike Welbel, which I wrote about more than three years ago.

And it embarrassed me to admit that I didn't know how the Welbel case had turned out -- whether the government had put him out of business or if he managed to survive.

Some of you may remember that column. It was carried in hundreds of papers, reprinted in the Reader's Digest, and "60 Minutes" picked it up.

But one of the sins of those of us in the news business is that we don't always go back and do a follow-up on how a story ends.

So let's do it now by starting at the beginning.

Welbel owned the Daniel Lamp Co. on Chicago's Southwest Side. He had 26 employees, most of them in the low-skill job of assembling lamp parts he bought from suppliers.

One day, two federal investigators came to see him. They told him he was accused of rejecting a woman's job application because she was black.

Welbel was stunned. He had 26 employees: 21 Hispanics and five blacks. In other words, all minorities. The reason he hired so many Hispanics is that his business was in the heart of a predominantly Hispanic area. When he had job openings, local community organizations would send him people who needed work.

But the feds went over his records and said that based on the area's population, he should have had more black employees. To be precise, 8.45 blacks.

And that was the beginning of two years of dealings with the bureaucrats at EEOC -- the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

This isn't like a regular court of law, where you are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Because he didn't have 8.45 blacks working for him, Welbel was in deep doo-doo.

And it got deeper when EEOC told him what they wanted.

* He would spend $10,000 for newspaper ads seeking blacks who had applied but had not been hired by his company.

* He would pay $123,991 to those who had applied for work but hadn't been hired.

As he told me at the time: "They [EEOC] want me to spend $10,000 to find people who didn't work for me so I can pay them $123,991 for not working for me."

And he said that if he had to do that, he would go broke and in debt and would have to close his business, which would put everybody there out of work, maybe on welfare.

And that was when we lost track of Welbel, as he went into prolonged negotiations with the EEOC, which, incidentally, refused to talk to me about the case.

So now for the update: It could have been worse.

He's still in business and doing OK. But it was a close call.

"When the story came out," he said, "a lot of my customers thought I'd be going under, so they started buying elsewhere.

"But I hung on. And after about 18 months of negotiations, we settled. My lawyer told me, 'Look, it's not a fair deal, but it's the best deal you're gonna get, and you have to get on with your life.'

"We had to give the government $25,000. They gave $5,000 to the lady involved in the discrimination complaint. And I've been paying off the other $20,000 in installments. There's no way I could afford that much in one shot. I recently paid our last installment."

And what did EEOC do with the $20,000?

"I think they found names in my files of people who didn't get hired. And they gave the money to them."

So it's over. But not really. Welbel still gets the jitters when he thinks or talks about it.

"We hammered out a three-year agreement, and we're still in the last year of it. We report everything to the government. We keep all kinds of records of who applies, who is hired, who is not hired, why they were not hired. We're really busy record-keeping for the government.

"It left a stigma in my mind. Sometimes I'm afraid I'm thinking the wrong thoughts . . . asking people the wrong questions when they apply. . . . You can get paranoid from this kind of thing. You're always afraid you're not doing the politically correct thing."

And there's another reason why this experience left emotional scars on Welbel: he is an unlikely target for the implied accusation of bigotry.

In a choked voice, he says: "My parents are Jews who survived Auschwitz. My mother had 13 brothers and sisters. Three were )) left. My father and his one brother were the only survivors out of his seven brothers and sisters. Who knows more about discrimination than Jews or blacks? That is really an extra sting.

"I'm sorry," he said, as he began to cry. "I get a bit emotional about this."

Your tax dollars at work.

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