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Charlotte Coke Bottler Settles Discrimination Case For $495,000

Charlotte-based Coca Cola Bottling Consolidated has agreed to pay half a million dollars in back pay and wages to dozens of African American and Hispanic job seekers who were turned down for work. The discrimination case was brought against Coke Consolidated by a special division of the Department of Labor that enforces fair hiring practices at companies that do business with the government. Never thought about a soda company as a government contractor? Coke Consolidated supplies beverages to numerous military installations and government buildings. Because of all those soda sales to soldiers, Coke Consolidated is subject to periodic hiring audits. One in 2002 uncovered evidence that 95 African American and Hispanic job seekers were rejected for sales positions at Coke's Black Satchel Road distribution facility. In a statement, Coke Consolidated says it does not discriminate and insists the applicants were rejected for legitimate reasons that had nothing to do with race. But the Department of Labor did a statistical analysis of Coke's hiring for that period and found a racial disparity that was "too great to occur solely by chance." Coke Consolidated admits no wrongdoing, but has agreed to pay $495,000 in back pay and wages to those 95 workers. Labor law expert Meredith Jeffries of the Charlotte School of Law says the settlement is "very significant" because Coke Consolidated has also agreed to seek out the minority applicants it rejected in 2002 and hire at least 23 of them. They'll get seniority benefits retroactive to 2002. Why did it take so long to come to the agreement? A spokesman for the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs says Coke Consolidated dragged its feet in agreeing to the terms. And given the economic situation, Coke may find some eager takers among those workers it once rejected. "Particularly if the retroactive seniority benefits mean they are now going to be entitled to pay and vacation and other benefits as if they had been there 8 years, which might make their wages higher than in the job they're currently in," says Jeffries. If Coke Consolidated didn't do business with the government, Jeffries says those job seekers would have been unlikely to get the same settlement without a lengthy court battle. A public records request made earlier this year reveals the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs spot-checked hiring practices at more than 250 companies in the Carolinas between January 2008 and February 2010. Records show nine of them were required to compensate job seekers as a result of discrimination. A South Carolina branch of Wachovia and a Freightliner Trucks plant in Cleveland, North Carolina both agreed to pay back wages to minority applicants totaling more than $400,000. Two Perdue Farms poultry plants were cited for hiring too many Hispanic workers, and not enough people of other races.