By Logan Smith

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (CBS4) — A federal agency is pursuing damages against a Washington-based non-profit on behalf of a Black man who claims he was called racial slurs by co-workers and eventually fired from the company for complaining about it.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming on Sept. 27. The legal action seeks compensation for 59-year-old Bryan Wheels, the only African American employee on a grounds crew working at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, according to the legal filing. The lawsuit also seeks punitive damages (a financial penalty) against Wheels’s employer, Skils’kin.

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Skils’kin, a non-profit focused on disabilities and employment that operates in Washington, Montana, Oklahoma, and Wyoming, was operating as a contractor at the base.

Wheels began his stint with the Skils’kin grounds crew in September of 2015. Two months later, he was transferred to a dining hall assignment, according to the EEOC’s complaint.

So was another man, Thomas Johnson.

In Wheels’s presence, Johnson made references to white supremacy, the Ku Klux Klan, and the SS in Nazi Germany, according to the lawsuit.

Wheels complained to a Skils’kin assistant manager about Johnson’s behavior in May of 2017. The assistant manager transferred Wheels back to the grounds crew.

Along with Johnson.

In fact, the two were paired together as a two-man team.

Johnson’s behavior worsened, according to the EEOC complaint. Wheels was reportedly called “monkey,” “jungle bunny,” and “n****r,” and the crew’s “token” hire by Johnson. The assistant manager and another grounds crew employee also allegedly referenced Wheels with “n****r.”

Wheels was allegedly told by the assistant manager to keep quiet, according to the complaint.

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Wheels refused and reported the behavior to Skils’kin supervisors. He was terminated that December.

Such alleged behavior violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the EEOC claims.

“Title VII protects employees of all races and guarantees them the right to work in an environment that is free from racial harassment,” said Mary Jo O’Neill, regional attorney of the EEOC’s Phoenix District. “When an employer learns about race-based harassment in the workplace, it must take prompt action designed to stop the behavior. An employer who fails to do so violates federal law.”

The EEOC’s Phoenix District holds jurisdiction in cases in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and portion of New Mexico.

The EEOC alerted Skils’kin to the complaint in February. Company representatives met with EEOC staff in attempt to come to a resolution, but no agreement was reached by late July. EEOC then proceeded with legal action.

CBS4 received a statement from Brian Behler, the president and chief executive officer of Skils’kin, earlier this week:

“We take allegations of discrimination in the workplace very seriously. We do not in any way condone or support any form of discrimination. Skils’kin is committed to creating safe and inclusive work environments for all its employees. We have a policy of swiftly, thoroughly, and diligently investigating every such allegation made by any of our employees.
Recently, we became aware of an allegation of discrimination involving an employee at our FE Warren Air Force Base Operations location when a complaint was filed with the State of Wyoming and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. From that moment, we have been closely cooperating with investigations by the State of Wyoming and the EEOC. Our team also began an investigation of the allegations, to the fullest extent possible, to better understand and resolve this matter for all parties involved. Our efforts to obtain all necessary information regarding this issue are still ongoing.
Working with counsel, we have begun the process of conciliation with the EEOC. We will continue to seek all necessary information required to not only ensure that the rights of the parties in this issue are fairly respected, but also that the safety and inclusivity of our workplaces is maintained for all our employees.”

Online court records indicate Skils’kin must respond to the complaint by Oct. 19.

Online public records reveal past addresses for Wheels in Denver, Aurora and Nebraska. An attempt to reach him through the EEOC was unsuccessful.

 

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Logan Smith