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NBC 10 I-Team: Local workers accuse Kellogg's of sexism, racism and bullying

Sylvester Cyler, a Kellogg employee of 10 years, told the I-Team he's been called a monkey and n-word at work and management has done nothing to stop it. (WJAR)

Editor's Note: This story contains language and adult content that some people may find offensive.

A picture of a black animal hung on the office door. A drawing of a half black, half white face posted in the locker room. A photo of a baboon shared around the warehouse.

The N-word, monkey, grimace and s--c (a racial slur to reference Hispanic person), just some of the words used at a Kellogg Sales Co.'s distribution center in Franklin, Massachusetts, the NBC 10 I-Team has learned.

A number of the company's former and existing employees shared details of what it's like to work at the distribution center, which handles Keebler cookie products. (The Kellogg Company, the world's leading cereal company, paid $3.8 billion cash in 2000 to acquire Keebler Foods, the second-largest cookie and cracker company in the nation.)

Employees tell NBC 10, that while their products' marketing and labels might depict a family-friendly company, their workplace is riddled with bullying, racial slurs and unfair work practices.

Allegations of racism

Employees say they've had enough, and some have even filed discrimination complaints.

Sylvester Cyler, who has been working at the center that packs and distributes Keebler snacks for nearly 10 years, said he witnessed managers and other employees making racist remarks to coworkers and at first looked the other way because he didn't want to lose his job.

That changed after Cyler saw what he called a pattern of racism in the warehouse and he himself became a target.

Cyler, who lives in Pawtucket, claims a number of incidents of racism, unfair work practices and safety hazards, in a five-page complaint filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD).

His complaint, filed in December 2013, is still pending, but he sat down with the NBC 10 I-Team to share his story.

Cyler tells NBC 10 that he filed a grievance with the company against his manager Arthur Cacici, who he believed was being racist toward another employee. That's when he became the target of racist remarks and other threats, he said.

"Nothing was resolved because of the grievance and Arthur continued to badger me," says the complaint. "He threatened to fire me. He got in my face, pointing his finger in my face and called me a monkey."

Complaints equal retaliation

Cyler said he became a target after he was trying to bring attention to racist remarks and gestures made to co-worker Rui DaCosta, an Angolan man who also worked at the cookie distribution center.

DaCosta had filed his own complaints with the Commission, one in 2008 alleging that Cacici, his manager, violated his civil rights by subjecting him to harassment based on his race and color and retaliating against him because of his opposition to discrimination by other employees.

"Cacici showed me a picture of a baboon with a blue face and orange butt. He then said to me, 'Hey Rui, is that you taking it up the a--?,'" DaCosta wrote in his complaint filed with MCAD.

One of the most humiliating issues according to the complaint was a picture of a person with a half white, half black face and large lips with the words "hello my name is Rui 1/2" written at the bottom.

"I find this picture embarrassing and humiliating," he wrote in the complaint.

NBC 10 reached Cacici by phone. And after first identifying that he was, in fact, Arthur Cacici, he then pretended to be an 85-year-old man that knew nothing about Kellogg.

DaCosta filed a second charge of discrimination with the Commission in January 2009 charging that an employee and manager retaliated against him because of his opposition to discrimination.

The alleged retaliation in the form of warnings and threats of termination began after he filed his first complaint, according to an investigatory document obtained by NBC 10 News.

Both of those complaints were removed from MCAD in 2010 because DaCosta wanted to file civil actions against the company.

DaCosta could not be reached for comment, but multiple sources tell NBC 10, DaCosta settled with the company before any civil action was ever filed in court. He's no longer working for Kellogg.

Lesson on discrimination

Cyler and DaCosta are not alone. A total of 11 discrimination cases have been filed with MCAD since 2008 under the Keebler and Kellogg names. And the I-Team discovered that an age discrimination case was filed in Rhode Island against the company.

Peter Galster of Wickford filed a civil lawsuit against Kellogg Company and Kellogg Sales Company in late 2014 on the basis of age discrimination and denial of severance benefits.

Galster, a 35-year employee with the company, was forced by the company to retire and was offered a new position with no option but to accept or resign with no severance or other benefit, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island.

Galster's case is still open, according to the court's case manager.

And charges against the company go beyond Massachusetts' and Rhode Island's borders. From 2011-2016 a total of 20 civil cases of job discrimination were filed against Kellogg Company and another 10 against Keebler.

Those complaints and others were filed after Kellogg established an Office of Diversity and Inclusion in 2005, not only to recruit and retain diverse employees, but to also create awareness of diversity issues.

Cyler, who is still employed by the company said he was fed up with constantly being called the n-word and contacted the company's human resources department.

A representative from the corporate office investigated, documents show. The representative, Shannon Baird, who handles employee relations for distribution and logistics, then held a course on discrimination at the distribution center, but Cyler said nothing has changed.

"Management attempted to rush her out of the facility without her ever speaking with me, but after demanding to speak to her, I was allowed to do so," Cyler writes in his complaint. "Despite Shannon Baird coming to the workplace, Joe Stampinato continues to call me a n-----. Management does nothing to stop it."

The NBC 10 I-Team asked Cyler, what's the worst thing he's heard at work. "The worst thing I heard, was Joe he un-zipped his pants, he told my co-worker to suck his penis he'd give him a dollar."

"It's not a real friendly type of environment, especially a person of color," Cyler told NBC 10 News. "You get treated different, the punishment is different."

As for Stampinato, he did not return requests for comment.

Nothing has changed

Fast forward a few years and employees tell the NBC 10 I-Team that nothing has changed.

Aboubacar "Gaston" Sylla, has filed multiple discrimination complaints about the company with MCAD alleging that he was called a slave, told he was a stupid and called the n-word by other employees. He also said managers did nothing to stop it.

"During the entire period of employment one of my coworkers Joseph Spampinato has repeatedly made fun of my race, country of origin and religion, repeatedly called me a n----- and saying 'praise Allah' when I was around," Sylla writes in a 2014 complaint.

A manager once told a coworker that he was going to tie his hands and feet together and drag him around the truck yard and there nothing he could do about it because no one would believe him because the manager was white and the employee was black, Sylla also explains in his complaint.

Employee Kevin Corbitt told the I-Team that the same employee "who is a big guy" often intimidates other, smaller employees.

"We had numerous minorities and Joe would ride around and make fun of Gaston because he was Muslim," Corbitt said. "He 'd ride around on the forklift and say, 'praise Allah and he's called them n------s and s--cs."

Sylla, who lived in Woonsocket before moving to Massachusetts, was allegedly called "Toby the slave" by one coworker and told he was a "stupid African" who must have AIDS because he's from Africa, according to the complaint.

Despite complaints to Steven O'Sullivan, the general manager at the distribution center, the harassment continued, according to the complaint.

"O'Sullivan was angry at me for reporting being called a slave by my coworker," Sylla writes in the seven-page complaint. "He stated it was just a joke."

Sylla, who has since settled his 2014 complaint, told NBC 10 News he could not comment. Two additional complaints, one filed with MCAD in 2015 and another in 2016, are still pending.

The NBC 10 I-Team went to the Kellogg facility to ask O'Sullivan about the multiple complaints. He wouldn't answer any questions about the allegations of discrimination and told the I-Team's Parker Gavigan to contact Kellogg's corporate office and asked the NBC 10 crew to leave the property.

Following K Values

Kellogg employees are expected to follow the company's K Values, six values that cover everything from respect to success.

The first K Value is to act with integrity and respect. "Show respect for and value all individuals for their diverse backgrounds, experiences, styles, approaches and ideas."

The NBC 10 I-Team reached out to a spokeswoman at Kellogg's corporate office in Michigan to ask about those K Values and complaints of racial and gender discrimination at the company.

"We take all claims very seriously and investigate each thoroughly ensuring all sides are taken into consideration and that all employees are treated fairly," Kris Charles, a Kellogg spokesperson wrote in a statement. "As a result, we take a variety of actions up to and including coaching and counseling, discrimination workshops, individual performance improvement plans and termination."

In order to protect the privacy of its employees, the company said it cannot comment on individual claims.

As for the lawsuits against the company, Charles said: "As a matter of policy, we do not comment on pending or past litigation."

A push for diversity and inclusion

Kellogg touts a culture of diversity in the workforce and its gender balanced board of eight men and six women. That board is made up of 12 Caucasians, one African American and one Hispanic. Its entire workforce includes 33 percent "people of color" and 67 percent Caucasians, according to the company's 2016 corporate responsibility report.

In fact, John Bryant, Kellogg chairman and CEO, said the company has created a council of executives to focus on diversity and inclusion at the company to ensure consideration of diversity and inclusion filters down into each functional area.

"There's always more to be done, of course – always more progress that can be made," he writes in his message in Features, Kellogg's publication on diversity. "We know we can get better and we know we can set higher goals for ourselves."

Kellogg told the I-Team that the company is firmly committed to diversity and inclusion.

" From how we treat each other to how we run our business, the company puts a tremendous amount of effort toward ensuring equality and respect through our policies, benefits and culture," Charles said in a prepared statement. "We provide multiple channels by which employees can voice their concerns, some of which are anonymous."

Bullying beyond belief

A number of current and former employees tell the NBC 10I-Team that racial discrimination isn't the only problem, there's bullying at the company, too.

Gary Clark, a truck driver who has worked for nearly 30 years at the company, said that same general manager has a history of bullying employees and he and others want it to stop. While the company is a good company at which to work, too much is being ignored, he said.

"Any new hires he'd go out and personally --the distribution manager -- would go out and say, 'if you don't produce for me I will take your vehicle away because I'm paying for that. You are working for me, you don't produce for me you'll be fired and I will take that vehicle away from you,'" Clark said.

"He thinks he owns these people," Clark said of the general manager.

Enough is enough

For Thomas Smith, enough was enough, he said. Smith, who worked for the company for 22 years, said things changed once Kellogg took over.

"When I started there 22 years ago it was a fun place to work," Smith said. "The work got done, we were the top distribution center in the country."

"Now, it's a very hostile work environment," he added.

Corbitt said there were many examples of bullying at the cookie distribution center like an incident over the "Star-Spangled Banner."

"Every day at noon we'd listen to WJIB and they'd play the national anthem," he said. "Most of us would stop and turn to the flag and put our hand on our chests."

But then O'Sullivan, the general manager, stepped in. "He took the radio away for two weeks because he doesn't want us to stop working during the national anthem," Corbitt said.

Speaking out

Clark said he and others are risking their jobs by speaking out, but that is a risk they are willing to take in order to protect others.

"I don't want anybody to have to go through what we've gone through," Clark said.

Tim McNamara, a truck driver who has been fired and rehired three times, agreed saying there will likely be retaliation for employees who speak out, but they are willing to take the risk.

Retaliation is the most frequently alleged basis of discrimination in the federal sector and the most common discrimination finding in federal sector cases, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

In fact, of all the charges of discrimination in Massachusetts (race, sex, origin, religion, color, retaliation, age, disability, equal pay), 29 percent of the state's complaints were charges of retaliation, only second behind disability, which accounted for 50 percent of the state's charges according to the EEOC.

In Rhode Island 34 percent of charges were retaliation, behind disability at 35 percent and age 37 percent.

"What we are trying to achieve here is to make it a better work environment," McNamara said. "I shouldn't go after 28 years go look for another job because the work environment is not a good environment to work in."

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