Taunts of "snowflake" and "honky" and KKK references peppered Lois Sinder's days working in an all-black department at an East Chicago health center between 2005 and 2009, according to court records.
Sinder was the only white employee in the Lake County Nursing and Rehabilitation Center's dietitian department, states a federal civil suit filed last week, and her black co-workers did not let her forget it. They made fun of her "blotchy skin," called her a "ghost" and made comments about "white people food" and "white people paying for our rent/NIPSCO/food stamps," the suit claims.
After Sinder complained to her supervisors, she said nothing changed. The Lake County dietary aide, who is in her 60s, alleges she was made to do the most dirty and strenuous tasks that nonwhite employees never did, and that her supervisor found frivolous reasons to write her up in retaliation for speaking out about the alleged harassment.
Sinder was fired in 2009.
"She's been unemployed since the date of termination, and after more than 20 years of service she was marched out of there like a criminal," said Sinder's attorney, Marissa McDermott. "She's a kind, grandmotherly type who really can't understand why people would be anything less than civil to each other."
Sinder's discrimination case is one of at least two in Lake County that claims a business and its employees harassed or denied a nonminority employment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that enforces laws against workplace discrimination, is suing Dots Inc. after its Merrillville staffer allegedly denied a Portage woman and other white applicants employment. Dots, an fashion apparel specialty store, has denied the allegations.
Over more than a decade, the EEOC has seen about a 45 percent increase in race-based discrimination claims -- including those filed by nonminorities -- it investigated and found "reasonable." And the rate of change for minority employment among women has in some ethnicities increased by about 50 percent over the last 20 years.
"Race and color discrimination in employment are unjust and unlawful, regardless of the race or color of the perpetrators or the victims," said EEOC spokesman James Ryan. "The EEOC will continue to fulfill its mission of combating such illegal conduct and educating everyone -- employers, employees and the general public -- on all Americans' legal right to be free from discrimination in the workplace."
Hammond, Gary and Indianapolis NAACP branches did not respond to interview requests, and the organization's national spokesman was not available.
Ken Coopwood, director of Indiana University Northwest's diversity programming, said more majorities have been filing discrimination lawsuits because job shortages have increased competition among the unemployed.
"Historically speaking, it's been the underrepresented population that have had to deal with the spoils of being the minority," he said. "It's a new paradigm shift for majority employees to find themselves having to report to a minority person ..."
But Coopwood said no one deserves to be the target of derogatory comments, regardless of race, age or gender.
Sinder, whom the EEOC issued a right to sue letter after reviewing her case, said she could not understand why co-workers harassed her.
"My philosophy has always been to treat other people the way I would want to be treated," she said. "I wouldn't wish this upon anyone else."
The administrator at Snider's former company, Kelly Alderman, claimed he was not aware of her complaint. The Times faxed a copy of the filing to Alderman, who declined comment after receiving it.
"Until we are officially served, we have no comment," he said.
Sinder never had issues with minority co-workers prior to 2005, McDermott said, and the problems started after new staffers joined the department. Federal law states discrimination is illegal, regardless of a victim's race.
"The phrase 'reverse discrimination' is ... an unfortunate phrase, because it takes the focus off of the crime and puts it on what race the victim is," McDermott said.