50 more current, former workers say drug firm discriminates against black employees
By John Russell
Dozens of current and former workers at Eli Lilly and Co. are stepping forward to accuse the Indianapolis drug maker of racial discrimination, adding heft to an ongoing lawsuit that paints the company as hostile to black employees.
Lilly, Indianapolis' largest private employer with about 13,000 workers here, said it will "promptly and thoroughly" investigate the allegations, and act on them if appropriate.
But the company said the charges do not reflect the company's values, and added that the original lawsuit, filed last year by four workers, was without merit.
The charges could be a further distraction for Lilly, which has its hands full trying to replenish its product pipeline and is dealing with fierce competition and slowing industry growth. One analyst called the development "another unneeded piece of bad news" for the drug maker.
About 70 people rallied Thursday morning on the steps of the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Downtown Indianapolis and scolded Lilly for what they called unfair treatment to blacks in pay, advancement opportunities and workplace culture.
As of Thursday, 50 more plaintiffs had joined the case. They include sales representatives, production workers, office workers and professionals from Lilly locations that include Indianapolis, Dallas, Atlanta, Memphis, Tenn., and Charlotte, N.C., said Josh Rose, of the Washington law firm Rose & Rose.
The lawsuit seeks class action status for hundreds of people who have come forward to describe what they call unfair treatment, said Rose. About two-thirds of those people are former employees, and the others still work at the company, he said.
"There's a pattern that's going on at the company, and it's a pattern that's got to stop," Rose told the cheering crowd.
The rally was organized by plaintiffs and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation's largest civil rights organization, which has thrown its support behind the case.
Dennis Courtland Hayes, the NAACP's national interim president and chief executive officer, said there is not true diversity at Lilly.
"The ability to support one's family, to gather wealth and send your children to college, these things can't happen when you don't have the opportunity to rise in your job," Hayes said.
Several former Lilly employees said they ran into discrimination at Lilly that blocked their careers and made their workdays difficult.
Pierrel Foxworth, a chemist who worked at Lilly for four years, said he trained a less-skilled white worker who later received a pay increase while he didn't. He said he was told he had to wait at least three years for a promotion, while others got them earlier. He said he was relieved of his duties and given a severance package in 2005. He now works for an Indianapolis drug-development services company.
Margie Reliford worked for Lilly for 14 years, most of the time as a clinical trial coordinator. She said she received only two promotions in that time. She left Lilly temporarily to get more education, and when she returned, she said, she was told her job was filled. She said she was given the choice of becoming a clerk or cleaning monkey cages at the company's animal-research labs in Greenfield.
Even some long-retired Lilly workers showed up to support what they called an unfair workplace. Charles Peterson, who retired in 2001 after 37 years of service at Lilly as a painter and biosynthetic operator, said he was held back while white counterparts got promotions.
"If you weren't a good old boy, you couldn't get ahead," he said.
Lilly declined to comment on individual cases, calling them private personnel matters. But Patty Martin, Lilly's vice president for global diversity, said the company will "promptly and thoroughly investigate these new allegations."
She said Lilly tries to foster an atmosphere where employees feel encouraged to report all improper workplace activity.
Lilly said 16 percent of its employees are minorities. Its highest-ranking minority employee Derica Rice, chief financial officer.
Some outsiders say the drug industry is vulnerable to racial charges because relatively few senior executives are minority.
"From what we can tell, the senior management ranks of major pharmaceutical companies are not particularly diverse, which makes them incrementally more of a target of discrimination suits," Les Funtleyder, a drug analyst at Miller Tabak & Co., wrote in a research note to clients Thursday.
One of the original plaintiffs, Cassandra Welch, said she was fired in 2004 in retaliation for complaining to the company's human resources department, accusing several managers of discrimination. Welch worked at Lilly for 12 years and said the company's many minority-friendly policies rarely were applied. She said she found a black doll with a noose around its neck after raising complaints.
The lawsuit said Welch was dismissed over allegations that she falsified e-mails sent to a co-worker about non-Lilly business.
Shares in Lilly closed Thursday at $52.72, down 5 cents.