Eight current and former United Parcel Service employees in Lexington have filed a lawsuit against UPS, alleging racial discrimination.
The employees, who are black, say in the lawsuit filed Friday in Fayette Circuit Court that they have been subjected to racist comments, disparate treatment based on race, and retaliation after they complained. The lawsuit also describes an incident in which an effigy of a black UPS driver was hung from the ceiling outside the managers' offices for four days.
The suit names UPS and three of its managers — James Michael Mattingly, David Kleckner and Elizabeth Speaks — as defendants.
"We believe the allegations are unfounded," UPS spokeswoman Susan Rosenberg, who works out of the company's Atlanta headquarters, said Monday. "We take it seriously and we investigated it, and that was done when this was first called to our attention."
The employees — William Barber, Jeffrey D. Goree, John J. Hughes, David W. Young, Curtis A. Weathers, Lamont Brown, Glenn D. Jackson and Donald L. Ragland — contend in the lawsuit that they "endured severe and pervasive comments, intimidation, ridicule and insults while working at UPS."
Examples cited in the suit included "referencing an African-American employee as a 'jungle bunny,' stating to an African-American employee that his prostate cancer is a 'black disease,' remarks likening an African-American employee to a 'monkey'" and other comments.
The employees say that after they went to human resources with their concerns, they were retaliated against by managers who did "extended 'ride alongs'" with them on their delivery routes "as a subtle means to intimidate and punish the plaintiffs for raising these issues."
They say they also were punished more severely than white employees for "alleged workplace infractions." Two of the employees were fired; two others resigned, which the lawsuit says constitutes "constructive discharge."
The lawsuit says that on Aug. 9, 2012, one of the managers made a dummy in a UPS uniform with a dark brown toboggan as a head and it hung from the ceiling until Aug. 13, 2012.
The dummy's hands and one foot were tied to a ladder to demonstrate the "three points of contact" that employees should have when using a ladder. Twine was tied around the dummy's neck and to the ceiling to "prevent the dummy from falling forward," the lawsuit says UPS claimed.
Later, the ladder was moved and the dummy hung from the ceiling with a handwritten note that read, "no hangings please."
Rosenberg said UPS "fundamentally disagrees with the allegations and claims that were made that a safety demonstration was held with any intent to be offensive or discriminatory. Safety is an important focus for UPS."
She said the figure was intended to "prevent our drivers from having any injuries" by providing a visual illustration.
Luke Morgan, the attorney representing the eight men, said the effigy "had racial overtones. That clearly was understood and seen by the employees."
"They just reached a breaking point at UPS and couldn't take the conditions there anymore," Morgan said. "The dummy hanging from the ceiling was just what tipped the scales to take public action."
The employees have filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the suit states.
Weathers, one of the plaintiffs, who has worked for UPS for nearly 37 years, said there was "a little more animosity" now than there was when he started.
"Management has some favorites, I guess," he said Monday. "We've been treated a little bit different."
For example, Weathers said, a white driver had been stopping at Jellico Mountain every day and sleeping for an hour, and no one in Lexington noticed until someone at the corporate level asked about it.
In contrast, Weathers said, he must strategize when and where to stop to take a bathroom break because management wants drivers to spend no more than six to eight minutes outside the truck to go to the restroom. Sometimes, he said, there might be a wait for a stall, or he might have to walk across a big parking lot at a truck stop. Plus, Weathers said, he has high blood pressure and diabetes, which means he needs to stop more frequently.
"It's just little things like that that kind of irks you," he said. "You can't see the big gap, but you can see the little gap."
Weathers said he was fired by UPS on May 1, after the second of two trailers he was pulling overturned as he was driving down Jellico Mountain.
Weathers said it was the first time he had driven that particular rig, a newer model with features he was not accustomed to.
"I've come down that mountain 27 years ... I've never had one of the trailers do what that one did," he said.
Weathers was reinstated later in the month, after the union became involved. He said he thought white drivers in similar situations had been brought back to work by UPS within two or three days of such an incident.
Weathers said he hoped the outcome of the lawsuit would be a workplace where employees were supervised more equally.
"I would like to see more togetherness," he said, "to be able to sit down and talk about this, being fair."
Karla Ward: (859) 231-3314. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.