The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claims that the Walgreen drug-store chain has been discriminating against African-American workers.
The suit alleges that Walgreen commonly sends its African-American managers and pharmacists to low-performing stores and those in predominantly black neighborhoods. The EEOC also accuses the company of denying promotions based on race.
James Neely heads the agency's St. Louis office. He says the federal lawsuit follows complaints by Walgreen workers around the country.
"Not all of them know each other, and the fact that they all told the same tale drew our interest," he said.
But Neely charges that Walgreen's pattern of discrimination is widespread, affecting thousands of black employees.
"We rely on statistical data as well," Neely said. "And the statistical information that we look at suggests that these allegations are true, beyond just these 19 individuals."
Pearle Phillips — who is among the 19 who complained — started working at Walgreen a decade ago, in a predominantly white community near St. Louis. But Phillips' attorney, JoDee Favre, says that assignment did not last.
"Not long after her manager learned that she was black, she was reassigned to a store that [Walgreen] refers to as an ethnic store," Favre said. "That term generally refers to the low-income, primarily black stores."
Favre says her client was moved several more times, including a stint in predominately black East St. Louis. Phillips still works for Walgreen, though she was moved again just before the suit was filed.
Walgreen denies that it discriminated against anyone. Spokesman Michael Polzin says the company is disappointed with the government's action.
"We're the nation's best-represented retailer in urban areas, and managers of all backgrounds promoted to senior levels from those locations," he said. "Our commitment is to providing opportunity to all employees."
This is not the first race-discrimination lawsuit filed against Walgreen. In 2003, four black customers sued the company for $2.5 million, claiming mistreatment. Last month, a jury in Nevada cleared Walgreen of wrongdoing, though the plaintiffs are appealing.
This latest lawsuit seeks back pay, unspecified monetary damages and an end to the alleged discrimination.