Two former employees at the Eddie Bauer store in Augusta have filed a whistleblower lawsuit seeking a jury trial against the outdoors retailer, alleging they endured retaliation after complaining to management about racial slurs and discriminatory behavior.
The three-count lawsuit, which seeks unpaid wages and an unspecified amount of monetary damages, also asks that the court require the store to stop the behaviors. It was filed on Sept. 25 in Kennebec County Superior Court, but is being moved to a U.S. District Court in Maine.
A whistleblower case involves someone who informs on another person or organization about what they deem to be an unlawful act.
The lawsuit was brought by Tammy Atkins-Poulin of Winslow and Raquel Eliasen of Readfield against Eddie Bauer under the Maine Human Rights Act and the Whistleblowers’ Protection Act.
Eddie Bauer is based in Bellevue, Washington. According to its website, Eddie Bauer operates three stores in Maine: Augusta, Kittery and the Maine Mall in South Portland.
Neither an Eddie Bauer spokesperson nor the company’s Portland-based lawyer immediately answered requests for comment on the lawsuit.
Eliasen started working as a store manager at Eddie Bauer on Dec. 1, 2015. Atkins-Poulin was a sales associate with an unspecified start date. Eliasen was later fired and Atkins-Poulin quit.
The Maine Human Rights Commission, which just released its fiscal year 2018 annual report, found that whistleblower retaliation complaints such as this one are common, representing the fourth most frequent complaint received by the commission.
Of the 709 total complaints the commission received from July 1, 2017, through June 30, 2018, 434 were for whistleblower retaliation. That’s about double the cases the previous fiscal year.
“It’s a common complaint,” said Amy Sneirson, executive director of the commission, which doesn’t have the power to impose penalties but can bring parties to the table to try to reach an agreement.
“Retaliation claims have been going up nationwide and at the state level for years,” she said. “The #MeToo movement might play into it as people see there’s a benefit to reporting it.”
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Rebecca Webber of Skelton Taintor & Abbott in Auburn, who specializes in employment law, said she’s surprised discrimination and racism cases continue to be so common.
“The only way you’re going to effect change is to bring a case and chip away at it,” she said. “You just can’t sit there and be complacent. This conduct is going on.”
‘Racially hostile environment’
The lawsuit says both women “observed and experienced a racially hostile environment created by their managers’ racist comments, racial slurs and racially motivated employment decisions, which they each found offensive and reported to management.”
One example they gave was a young African-American man interviewing on or around July 2016 for an assistant manager job at the store. Eliasen and store manager Angela Paine interviewed him. The lawsuit describes him as well-dressed, having a college background, being well-spoken and professional and being the most qualified job candidate.
Eliasen recommended the man for the position. The lawsuit states that Paine said, “No, we can’t hire someone like that here,” to which Eliasen asked, “What do you mean ‘like that?’”
Paine is reported to have said, ”Well he’s black and customers won’t buy anything from him.” Eliasen told Paine that was illegal, to which Paine allegedly responded, “We never hire people like that here.”
Eliasen said in the lawsuit that assistant store manager Jennifer Karlson asked her to follow an African-American family around the store. She also said Karlson made it clear she didn’t want to wait on people of color.
In a statement through her attorney about her initial reaction to the racial remarks, Eliasen said, “I called my mom and said, ‘you won’t believe this. This was not how I was raised. I grew up around all kinds of people with my dad being in the military. I couldn’t believe this kind of racism still existed. It made me feel like I was selling out by working at Eddie Bauer.’”
Atkins-Poulin also said she saw Karlson following people of color around the store, including those wearing headscarves whom she identified as Muslins. White customers allegedly were not followed.
The lawsuit also alleges that Karlson used a derogatory term for Muslims in conversation with Atkins-Poulin and asked if her husband “had taken pleasure in shooting them in Iraq.”
Throughout their employment, both plaintiffs said they heard Paine and Karlson use multiple racial slurs.
The lawsuit alleges that Eddie Bauer discriminated against Eliasen and Atkins-Poulin because they reported what they believed were violations of state or federal law in the refusal to assist customers or hire people based on their race, in addition to reportedly changing work timesheets.
Both plaintiffs also said in the lawsuit that there were several instances in which they were not paid for the hours they worked, which they said started in the fall of 2016.
Each woman also cited examples of how lunch breaks and other time appeared to have been manipulated on their time cards.
Eliasen also said Eddie Bauer failed to pay her for several hours of work she performed at home and before the normal work day setting up floor displays and doing other tasks assigned to her. On Sept. 12, 2017, Eliasen asked management to pay her the wages under Maine law. Atkins-Poulin did the same on Sept. 29, 2017.
After several back-and-forth conversations with the store’s management, and a disagreement over a $50 cash register discrepancy, Eliasen was fired on Feb. 27, 2017.
Atkins-Poulin later quit, reportedly because the racist behavior continued.
The lawsuit asks that the court compel Eddie Bauer to desist from all unlawful harassment and retaliation, pay each plaintiff back wages and compensatory damages, pay litigation and expert witness fees and grant other relief as the court deems appropriate.
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Correction: An earlier version of this report misidentified Rebecca Webber’s law firm.