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A new lawsuit alleges that Boca Raton's Stein Mart was in fact a hotbed of racism

Scrawled in green, the cursive Stein Mart logo stands out against the coral stucco of the strip mall. This is Boca Raton, the pink city, so color coordination is a chief concern.

Inside there are reptile-print slippers in turquoise, silver, and ruby. Pastel aromatherapy candles are stacked on a table, and the racks overflow with rows of pantsuits in jade, fuschia, and lime. "I would suggest this color," says a saleswoman fussily attempting to match merchandise, "but it's a little off for that."

Indeed, when it comes to color, the Boca Raton store may be more than a little off.

Former employee Jonathan Morales says racism was business as usual at the Boca Raton Stein Mart
Joshua Prezant
Former employee Jonathan Morales says racism was business as usual at the Boca Raton Stein Mart

In June 1998 Jonathan Morales took an undercover security job at the Boca Stein Mart, a position known in the delicate parlance of retail management as "loss-prevention officer." It required him to follow customers incognito to prevent "shrinkage." In other words Morales was hired to make sure people didn't steal and to catch them if they did. The job description was simple, but it wasn't long before things got complicated, he says.

"It actually first started when I came into work. As I was walking into the back office, I heard the general manager tell an assistant manager that the store was becoming "a damn melting pot' and he'd like to "do what they did in the old days and string 'em up.'

"Two or three days later, some black shoppers came into the store, and he said, "I have some of your people here, and I need you to follow them.' I didn't know what he meant by that, "your people.' I thought he meant some family members."

Morales, it should be noted, is black. He says store manager William Abel, who is white, repeatedly told him to focus his security efforts on black and Hispanic shoppers, whom he says the manager referred to as "those people." This struck him as racism, so he complained to the corporate office and was told to complain to the management of the store, he says.

When he did, "[They] told me if I didn't like it, I could leave."

Abel declined to be interviewed for this story.

Kris Shoop also worked undercover security at the store and says customers for the most part reflect the population of Boca: wealthy whites. Although black and Hispanic customers were in the minority, Shoop, who is white, says he was expected to devote his time to watching people of color.

"Regardless of what I was doing or who I was watching, Mr. Abel would have me stop what I was doing and watch Hispanic people, black people, basically darker skins. I would listen to him, you know, but it didn't make sense. I'm going to concentrate on the black people and Hispanic people while the white people steal? That's ridiculous. I don't see color. Everyone steals."

Frustrated with what he regarded as racism, Shoop quit after a few months on the job. "I didn't want to be part of that bandwagon," he says. "That bothered me." Shoop now works as an undercover security guard at another department store.

In March, Morales was fired from his job at Stein Mart. At his unemployment compensation hearing, company officials testified that he was terminated for failing to follow procedure in handling an item in the store's lost and found. The hearing officer ruled in Stein Mart's favor; Morales was denied benefits.

However, at the hearing, current and former employees painted a picture of the Boca Stein Mart that corroborates Morales' allegations by depicting racial jokes and stereotyping as business as usual for the Boca store.

"Well, generally we just joke about our customers when we go back in the break room," testified gift department manager Lorraine Spagnia. "It's just something we do in our lunchroom to relieve tension, is to make comments on our customers."

But Spagnia said it wasn't black or Hispanics who bore the brunt of the jokes: "Well, actually, we really joke about our Jewish clientele, truthfully. We have a lot of snowbirds down in the area…."

Indeed Morales says racial jokes were so commonplace they were uttered openly around -- and even by -- store managers. He says Jewish customers were routinely referred to among management and hourly employees as "Jewish bitches." The break room in particular was a hotbed of racial stereotyping, he says. "The break room was a place you didn't want to be if you were Jewish, black, or Hispanic. A lot of times, customers would mistake the door to the break room as a bathroom and just walk right in. I saw shoppers hear these comments, set their stuff down, and leave."

Now Morales has filed a civil suit in Palm Beach County District Court, alleging store management condoned a racist workplace, required racial profiling of shoppers, and unfairly fired him. He's seeking compensation for lost wages, emotional pain and suffering, and punitive damages.

The unemployment hearing testimony is central to Morales' case against Stein Mart, says his attorney, Loring N. Spolter. Spagnia testified that she had worked at the Boca store for more than two years and never received any antidiscrimination training, nor had she ever heard a manager tell her or others to stop making racial jokes.

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