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Worker alleges ethnic slurs

A 30-year employee of a Salt Lake custom woodworking company is alleging he was repeatedly subjected to ethnic slurs and profane comments about his Hispanic heritage.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed the federal lawsuit last week against Granite Mill & Fixture Co. on behalf of Ralph Ruiz, a Mexican American. The suit accuses Granite Mill managers of ignoring the discrimination in violation of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

"Although defendant was aware of the national origin harassment, it failed to take appropriate action to prevent or correct the unlawful conduct," the lawsuit states.

According to the suit, Ruiz worked at Granite Mill from 1972 until March 2002.

The EEOC's investigation revealed that Ruiz's supervisor "merely laughed" when Ruiz complained of the comments and that Granite Mill's vice president was personally informed of the hostile work environment but failed to take action against the offending workers, said Mary Jo O'Neill, regional attorney for the EEOC's Phoenix district office.

"No employee, regardless of his or her national origin, should have to endure ethnic slurs on a regular basis," O'Neill said.

Granite Mill owner Gary Sandberg said Wednesday that he was unaware, prior to reading the lawsuit, of any complaints lodged by Ruiz, who did general woodwork for the company until he was let go during a general reduction in force.

"For 97 years, we have maintained, and are very proud of, our climate of good working relationships with our people," Sandberg said. "It's something that we feel very strongly about as a company."

Granite Mill has been in operation since 1907 and is a three-generation family business. Sandberg said the company employs a number of Hispanics among its approximately 30 employees, and he is unaware of any other similar allegations.

"We're just looking into this," he said. "We take this very seriously."

In addition to filing lawsuits against offending companies — approximately 360 nationwide each year and about five annually in Utah's U.S. District Court — the EEOC works to educate employers about their employees' rights under the law.

"I just think it's important for employers to realize that when there's ugly racist comments going on in the workplace, it's their obligation to make it stop," O'Neill said.

The suit seeks a permanent injunction to stop any alleged harassment by Granite Mill employees, as well as a court order that would require the company to institute policies to provide equal-employment opportunities for Mexican Americans. It also seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.