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Failure To Protect Worker From Customer Harassment Leads To Suit

grocery checkout line

A recent federal court decision in Oregon emphasizes the need for employers to respond appropriately when a worker alleges harassment by a customer.

Ronald Vidal, a cashier/checker at a Safeway supermarket in Portland, claimed that as he was nearing the end of a shift, several white customers became impatient during the checkout process and began showering Vidal, who is Black, with harassing language and racial slurs. Vidal grew concerned that the assault would turn physical, but received no assistance when he asked for help from management. Furthermore, supervisors allegedly ignored his request to remove the offending customer from the store, despite a witness also seeking help.

The next day, the manager gave Vidal an unpaid suspension, which it later declared a “disciplinary suspension” for actions that it claimed helped to escalate the incident.

Vidal brought a discrimination and retaliation suit in U.S. District Court, where the judge rejected Safeway’s requests to throw out the case.

Instead, the court credited Vidal’s version of events, supported by emails from the other customer, who reported that Vidal tried to de-escalate events. The court was also unpersuaded by Safeway’s argument that Vidal was disciplined for violating its “Violence Free Workplace” policy by threatening customers, particularly where Vidal argued that Safeway was crediting white customers’ accounts of the event over his account and that of a Black witness.

Now Vidal will have an opportunity to take his case before a jury, and even a pretrial settlement will not spare Safeway the considerable expense, hassle and bad press. The case highlights the importance of speaking with an employment attorney before taking action against a worker in response to a racially charged situation.