EEOC sues firm for hiring too many Hispanics

June 29, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

The jobs at Koch Poultry Co. are not exactly high-tech.

The workers stand in a cold, damp room at a table waiting for raw chicken breasts to come down a conveyor belt.

They carve out the bones and flip the breasts back on the belt, which takes them to workers who weigh, pack and freeze the product.

The jobs pay from $4.50 an hour to start to $6.75 an hour tops. Not a lot, but for people with little education and few skills, it beats welfare, panhandling or stealing.

And Mark Kaminsky, the chief financial officer of Koch Poultry, believes he is a fair employer.

"The job is perfect for a lot of our workers. Some don't speak English, but that doesn't matter. It's good, steady work -- first hook on the American ladder.

"It's like what my grandparents did when they came here from Poland. They took jobs cleaning floors and worked their way up. My father did a little better than his parents, and hopefully I'll do a little better than my father."

More than 90 percent of the 300 workers are Hispanic. That's the way the work force evolved. When the company was small and there was a job opening, somebody would bring in a friend or a relative.

And over the years, that's basically the way Koch has done its hiring -- word of mouth among the employees. Somebody from the neighborhood or the family.

There are those who might say that this is a good way to run a business. First, it simplifies hiring because there is no advertising cost. Since most new people come with the recommendation of a present employee, a big personnel department isn't needed. And it provides jobs for members of a minority group.

Ah, but if you think that way, it just proves that you are not a federal bureaucrat in the Chicago office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

To them, Koch Poultry is a villain because it has too many Hispanics.

So the EEOC, over the past few years, has come down on the company with both feet. It accused Koch of not hiring enough non-Hispanics. In other words, not enough majority members.

The company was told that hiring through word-of-mouth was "inherently discriminatory."

OK, for the sake of argument, let us say that makes sense, as crazy as it sounds.

If you were a reasonable person, how would you go about seeking a remedy?

Me, I would go in and tell the people at Koch: "Look, you have to hire more non-Hispanics. I don't care what: Swedes, African-Americans, Asians, Bulgarians, Native Americans, whatever. Start filling your vacancies that way. I'll check back in six months to see how you are doing."

Even that sounds wacky, but it is not complicated and would probably achieve a dubious goal.

No, that isn't how the EEOC does it.

What it does is work out some sort of bizarre mathematical formula. How many workers do you have? How much are they paid? Multiply this by that by how many non-Hispanics you didn't hire. Then pay this money to people who didn't go to work for you but might have if they knew the jobs were available.

"They told us," Kaminsky says, "that we were supposed to take out newspaper ads that asked for people who might have applied for a job, or if they were thinking about applying with us, so they might be entitled to a financial settlement.

"They said they wanted $5.2 million. They never put that in writing, but the EEOC investigator spelled it out for us.

"Of course, the entire company isn't worth that much, so we told them no way, we can't afford it.

"Then they told us that they didn't know what we could afford unless they saw our financial records. So we gave them our records. And they said: 'OK, you can afford this.' And they made it $1.5 million. And then they dropped it to $800,000."

Keep in mind, this money -- whether it was $5.2 million or $800,000 -- is to go to people who probably never heard of Koch Poultry or even wanted to work there. Any non-Hispanic could show up and say: "Sure, yeah, I really wanted to chop up chicken breasts. Give me my settlement."

After some angry exchanges between the bureaucrats and Koch's lawyers, the company decided not to give in to the shakedown effort.

Demanding a scalp, the EEOC has filed a suit in federal court asking for all sorts of dingbat concessions.

Koch will fight it. "We're better off going to court and spending $100,000 in lawyers' fees," Kaminsky says.

So here we have a company that provides regular paychecks for needy members of a genuine minority group. And it is being hounded by the government because it doesn't hire enough non-minorities.

Is that nuts or is that nuts?

Incidentally, we called the EEOC office in Washington and asked for a breakdown of EEOC employees by race, gender, ethnicity and age.

It told us to put our questions in writing.

Try telling the EEOC to put its questions in writing, and you'll be talking to a judge.

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