The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has renewed its effort to combat discrimination and harassment in the construction industry, filing in September four federal lawsuits against construction employers, including major specialty contractors such as erector Schuff Steel and mechanical contractor J.A. Croson. Each has been charged with violating federal laws against racial harassment in the workplace.

The lawsuits appear to be part of a stepped-up effort to hold construction employers responsible for supervisors or co-workers who torment Black and Hispanic employees with vulgar, degrading epithets or allow others to do so and retaliate or do nothing when the victims complain. The lawsuits do not include instances of racist graffiti or nooses intended to intimidate employees.

In May, the commission held a hearing on harassment and discrimination in the construction industry, which it described as "traditionally white and male dominated." EEOC Chair Charlotte A. Burrows and others at the hearing often referenced the $1.2-trillion federal infrastructure act and the opportunity it provides while noting that, “Unfortunately, many women and people of color have either been shut out of construction jobs or face discrimination that limits their ability to thrive in these careers.”

Burrows said during the hearing that “discrimination and harassment in construction can be especially harsh and virulent, including displays of nooses; threats and physical harassment and sometimes physical or sexual assaults."

EEOC filed federal lawsuits against two other smaller construction employers, Tampa-based paving contractor Alto Construction, and an Orange County, Calif.-based framing and drywall contractor, Goodsell/Wilkins.

None of the firms has yet filed a response in court to the allegations against them, which include offensive and demeaning language against Latino employees in the case of Goodsell/Wilkins, and in the case of Alto, regular use of an epithet against Black employees and deliberate humiliation that culminated in an employee's termination after a complaint.

J.A. Croson, based in Sorrento, Fla., could not immediately be reached for comment.

The lawsuit against Phoenix-based Schuff, the biggest steel erector in the U.S. and by far the largest of the companies charged, revolves around the alleged conduct of the company's Eloy, Ariz., fabrication plant manager, Travis Bell. He has been employed at the firm almost continuously since 2001, said EEOC.

Demeaning Treatment and Insults

A Black employee who started work at the plant in 2013, Kyle Barnett, has claimed that Bell regularly demeaned him with race-based insults. Bell was heard by other employees using a racial epithet and exclaiming "White Power!," among many other actions, EEOC claims, and Barnett eventually resigned. Bell's mistreatment of staff, EEOC also claims, also included regularly demeaning and insulting Hispanic employees.

Schuff Steel issued a statement saying that the company looks forward to defending itself in court and that it had investigated claims of widespread discrimination but did not find evidence supporting the complaint, "let alone a pattern of widespread discrimination at the Eloy fabrication facility" referred to by the EEOC.

The company added that "once all of the facts are presented, it will be determined that the company did not discriminate or retaliate against its employees and met its obligations as a good employer."