Ralph Sanchez says he's endured a lifetime of racism and now the Colorado Springs Hispanic man is fighting back.
After what he alleges was months of harassment and unfair treatment at a local Sears, Roebuck and Co. store, the 62-year-old Colorado native filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the national retailer on Nov. 5 in U.S. District Court in Denver.
Sanchez described his 10-month stint selling refrigerators at Sears at Chapel Hills Shopping Center from November 2000 until he quit at the end of August as "horrendous."
"They treated me poorly because I am Hispanic and they're prejudiced. There is no other reason. I never did anything to those people," Sanchez said.
The legal action, Sanchez said, is his way to stand up for his dignity and defend Hispanics in Colorado Springs. He's also asking for unspecified cash damages against Sears.
"The reason I am doing this is because discrimination is wrong -- period, end of story," he said. "I'm a nice, clean-cut guy, yet they treated me like garbage. It's amazing in today's society, in Colorado Springs, that someone could be treated as badly as I was. It's unbelievable."
Problems began immediately
Sanchez says his problems with Sears began almost immediately. In his suit, he claims he was the only Hispanic worker among 40 employees in the appliance department and that fellow employees offered him no assistance or advice and harassed him.
He claims fellow employees would tell customers Sanchez was out to lunch and steal his commission. He alleges at other times they would take identifying stickers off of merchandise that he had just sold to cause problems.
"I kept telling the management you don't have to use racial slurs to be discriminatory. They harassed me in every way they could."
Sanchez claims he was singled out while others were not. He was one of the few salesmen, he said, who would wear a suit and tie but on the off day he didn't wear a tie, he would be chastised by floor managers.
The foundation of his lawsuit is the contention that his hours were unfairly reduced from 40 to 32 hours after he did not meet sales requirements of lucrative warranty packages. In addition, he was not scheduled to work in prime sales slots during weekend hours, when sales staff, who earn a 5-percent commission, generally make the most money.
Sanchez claims other non-Hispanic workers who were also lagging behind in their warranty sales did not have their hours reduced. He claimed his hours were never increased to 40 hours despite improving his warranty sales and being one of the top-grossing salesmen.
"All I wanted was the privilege to work without being harassed. I just wanted to be left alone," he said
Sanchez subsequently filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in April, and said Sears, which had 180 days to respond, never did. Sanchez moved ahead with his lawsuit and quit at the end of August.
Denying the charges
Last week, Sears officials adamantly denied Sanchez was ever discriminated against. Chapel Hills store general manager Jerry Case says he worked closely with Sanchez to solve problems and called Sanchez's allegations of racial discrimination "absolutely false."
"Any time he came to me with credible, specific concerns, we addressed them," says Case, GM at the Chapel Hills store for six years. "I spent more time trying to rectify his concerns and listening to his point of view than I ever have in my 29 years at Sears with any other associate."
Case says Sanchez came in once or twice a week with complaints and some sales staff were given warnings to stay away from Sanchez after run-ins. Case also said others complained about Sanchez, though he refused to go into specifics due to pending litigation.
"There were some things, although minor, that were not the kinds of things that were appropriate," Case said of some comments directed toward Sanchez. "A couple of the associates who inadvertently said things were reprimanded. Anything that was out of line was minor. They were not using racial epitaphs."
Case firmly stated that discrimination is against the policy of Sears, one of America's oldest retailers. Last year, Sears, which employs 300,000 workers and has 860 retail stores nationwide, netted $40 billion in sales.
He also denies that Sanchez was singled out when his hours were reduced. Case claims that his hours were about to be returned to full-time status when Sanchez quit.
"I could tell early on he was serious about this, so I documented everything. I have a big file on him," Case said.
Ugly on the inside
For Sanchez, his lawsuit is just part of his efforts to battle what he says are inequities for Colorado Hispanics. He's recently completed a fictional work about the journey of a Hispanic man and his struggles against racism.
He is adamant that Colorado Springs in general has become more racist against Hispanics over the past decade or so, especially following waves of Californians, high-tech white-collar jobs, and religious organizations that have moved into the area.
"Colorado Springs is beautiful on the outside, but ugly on the inside," Sanchez said. "These people bring their prejudices with them. Colorado Springs has gotten so bad. I think it's a scandal in this town.
"My friends ask, 'Why don't you just leave?' Why should I? I was born here and my family's been here for generations and we were here long before these people came here."
Whether or not the case goes before a jury depends on a federal court judge. In the meantime, Sanchez is collecting unemployment and hoping to find a publisher for his book.