Woman's removal from oil rig off Nigeria brings bias lawsuit

 
Paper: Houston Chronicle
Date: THU 09/28/2000
Section: Business
Page: 2
Edition: 2 STAR

By L.M. SIXEL
Staff

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Wednesday sued Diamond Offshore Drilling alleging sex discrimination, contending that the company prevented a woman employee from returning to work on an offshore rig off West Africa because of political instability.

The EEOC contends in the federal lawsuit that company officials refused to allow Cristine Hafen, who had helped control the Ocean Valiant's movements as a ballast control operator, to return to the rig 23 miles off Nigeria.
The EEOC also sued Graco Interests, a holding company in the heating and air-conditioning business, accusing it of race discrimination and retaliation. It contends that the company bypassed a qualified black woman for a promotion three times, then fired her when she complained to the agency.

Hafen had worked on the rig in shifts of two weeks on and two weeks off until July 1998. At that point the company told her she couldn't return to her rig job because of concerns for her safety.

She had been earning a 25 percent premium for her "foreign service" duty.

The company did not remove the men working on the rig, said Rudy Sustaita, the EEOC lawyer who is handling the case.
On her "off weeks," Hafen was training for a better job as a dynamic positioning operator - a person who operates the propulsion system used to keep a rig in place - on a rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

While she continued working in the Gulf for Diamond Offshore Drilling, Hefan was never reassigned to a permanent job, said Rex Burch, an employment lawyer in Houston who represents Hafen. Moreover, she couldn't do a full hitch on the training job because the Gulf rig didn't have enough beds, he said. She resigned.

Burch estimates that Hefan lost $35,000 by giving up the foreign service premium and her job off the coast of Nigeria. She ended up working for a competitor in the Gulf at a lower salary.

Burch said situations like Hefan's are exactly why civil rights laws were passed.

Hafen is used to the kind of salty language heard on rigs and is no shrinking violet, Burch added.

"She isn't whining because she went to work and one of the men looked at her wrong," he said.

Burch, who typically represents management, said the Diamond case is unusual.

"It's the first time an employee has said they did it to me because I'm a woman and the company says, yes, we did it to her because she's a woman," he said.

"Diamond is disappointed that the EEOC has decided to use taxpayer dollars on such a meritless case," said Bryant McFall, an employment lawyer in Dallas who is representing the company.

"Diamond did not terminate Ms. Hafen's employment; instead it repeatedly promoted her and gave her an opportunity to succeed," he said. He said he could not comment further on the case.

In the Graco Interests case, the EEOC contended that Pamela Luckett, a black accountant, was unfairly denied promotions to the job of controller.

When the previous controller resigned, he recommended Luckett, who had already handled many of the controller's responsibilities. The job went to a white man.

When the new controller resigned, Luckett again asked for the job. It went to another white man, said Katrina Patrick, an employment lawyer in Houston who is representing Luckett.

That controller resigned a few days later and Luckett was passed over again in favor of yet another white man, Patrick said.
The EEOC maintains that Luckett was qualified for the controller's job. She has a bachelor's degree in accounting from Texas Southern University and 20 years of experience in auditing, tax accounting and consulting.

She wasn't promoted because of her race, said Patrick.

Patrick said she has an affidavit from a former officer of the company who said she heard Graco's owners make racial jokes in the workplace.

Jeff Mayes, an employment lawyer in Houston who represents Graco Interests, denies such jokes were made.
Sixteen days after Luckett filed a race and sex discrimination complaint with the EEOC, her job was eliminated, Patrick said. She then amended her EEOC complaint to include retaliation.

Kathy Boutchee, the EEOC lawyer handling the case, said there were never complaints about Luckett's performance. Boutchee called it a clear case of discrimination.

"You not only have a woman who applied three different times but came up with a business plan on how to run the department, yet was rejected out of hand," Boutchee said. Luckett stepped in and did the job when each of the comptrollers resigned, Boutchee added.

"Graco denies all allegations brought by the EEOC," Mayes said. "All of Graco's actions in the matter concerning Ms. Luckett were taken for legitimate business reasons. We feel that the EEOC's lawsuit will be dismissed once these matters come to light."


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