Mock KKK hood, burning cross prompt complaint at Orlando workplace

Ex-worker accuses supervisor of racial discrimination

ORLANDO, Fla. – As a longtime industrial painter, John Shipley was excited to get a job as a temporary employee with Gencor Industries, a publicly-traded company that manufactures construction equipment.
But about a month into the job, Shipley says he was subjected to racial discrimination.
In late April, as Shipley was sanding some metal, he claims his supervisor entered the paint booth holding a makeshift flaming cross while wearing a pointed white hood with writing on it that referenced the Ku Klux Klan.
"It's a hood that we wear when you're sandblasting, and it had 'KKK' written on top," said Shipley, an African-American.  "He actually put two paint sticks together, taped them up like a cross, took one of our rags that we use for cleaning up, and lit it on fire."
At first Shipley said he was scared by the supervisor, who was partially dressed in a white “spray suit” worn by workers while painting.
"He said, 'Get your a** over here right now.  I'm going to f*** you up," Shipley quoted his hooded supervisor as saying.
But then Shipley said he noticed two Caucasian employees laughing.
So he snapped a photograph.
"I pulled out my camera and said, 'Here, pose.'  And he posed like he was proud of it," Shipley told News 6 .
Jermaine Guilliaume, the only other black employee in the room during the incident, verified Shipley's account.
"I was in shock somebody would do that on the worksite," said Guilliaume.  "He had no shame doing that in front of people."
Immediately after sharing his photo with the company's Human Resources department, Shipley claims he, Guilliaume and three other minority temp workers were transferred to the night shift.  
Three months later, Shipley said the staffing agency that had arranged his job at Gencor Industries called to inform him that his services were no longer needed.
"The night shift has been terminated," Shipley claims he was told.
Shipley has filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that investigates workplace discrmination, as well as with a state agency that performs a similar function.
Representatives from Gencor Industries have not responded to News 6's repeated attempts to seek comment for this story.
Seven months after the 'KKK' hood incident, Shipley's former supervisor is still employed by the company.
"It was a mistake I made, but it was all in good fun," Gencor Industries paint department lead Jeff Crandall told News 6.
"It was a joke.  A big joke," said Crandall.  "(Shipley) knows that."
Supervisor claims incident was 'meant for a laugh'
In a nearly 40-minute telephone interview with News 6, Crandall denied that he targeted Shipley because of his race.
"I regret putting myself in any situation in which I'd be perceived as racist," said Crandall.   "It was meant for a laugh."
Crandall, who has posted Facebook photographs of himself at Gencor Industries wearing a painting hood inscribed with the hand-written phrase 'work sucks,' claims he occasionally “goofs around” on the job.
"It's kind of like a Halloween thing," Crandall said of the 'KKK' hood incident, pointing out that the clothing was part of his protective work uniform.   "Nothing was done out of any kind of ill intentions."
Crandall suggested that Shipley was not as offended by the incident as he now claims.
"He was part of it," said Crandall.
However, Crandall declined to say whether Shipley was present when the hood and makeshift cross was assembled.
"It was all innocent until somebody decided to take it too far," said Crandall, referring to Shipley's discrimination complaint.
Gencor Industries representatives have not responded to emails from News 6 inquiring about discipline Crandall faced after Shipley reported the incident.
Crandall told News 6 that the company suspended him for five days without pay.
However, Crandall denied Gencor Industries punished him for discrimination.
"I was suspended for 'horseplay'," Crandall told News 6.
Gencor Industries does not respond to News 6 report
In late September, Shipley's attorney sent a letter to Gencor Industries notifying the company that he intended to file a lawsuit for civil rights violations.
In the letter, attorney Frank Malatesta informed the company that News 6 had been in contact with Shipley about his allegations.
On Nov. 17, the day after News 6 conducted an on-camera interview with Shipley and four days prior to the publication of this story, News 6 left a voicemail for Gencor Industries Chief Executive Officer John Elliott.
On that same day, News 6 spoke on the phone to Gencor Industries Human Resources manager James Cook, who indicated he would inform his superiors about News 6's inquiry.
News 6 later sent three emails to Cook detailing Shipley's allegations and Crandall's comments.
An additional email was sent to the company's sales department.
A News 6 reporter also visited Gencor Industries headquarters on two consecutive days before this report was published, leaving business cards with the receptionist and signing the visitor log.
At the time of publication, no Gencor Industries representatives have responded to News 6's repeated attempts to seek comment.
Gencor Industries settles prior discrimination lawsuits
In 2013, Gencor Industries settled an age discrimination lawsuit filed by the company's former human resources manager, court records show. 
Frank Bilotta alleged that the company forced him to resign when he was 65 years old.
Weeks before Bilotta claims Gencor's Chief Financial Officer demanded his resignation, the former human resources sent a confidential memo to the company's founder and then-CEO, E.J. Elliott, warning of discriminatory hiring practices, court records show.
"I am writing to inform you of practices that I feel jeopardize the well-being of the company and should be immediately addressed in order to protect your organization's reputation and from legal action that may include (Equal Employment Opportunity) activity and lawsuits," Bilotta wrote in the May 2006 memo.
"In our recruiting efforts, I am being directed to find candidates for employment who fit a certain profile," Bilotta stated.  "For clerical candidates that profile is white, attractive (both facially and physically, the more so the better), no child care issues, no accent, non-smokers, no domestic partners and willing to work for salaries out of line with prevailing market rates."
The former human resources manager suggested that departing employees complained about the former CEO's son during their exit interviews.
"On several occasions I have been asked as to whether (then-vice president) John Elliott's management style constitutes creating a 'hostile work environment' due to his lack of sensitivity to people and issues," Bilotta wrote.
John Elliott replaced his father as CEO last year.
According to court records, E.J. Elliott later returned the Bilotta's memo with a handwritten note on top that read, "Frank.  You have wasted my time."
In a deposition that was conducted as part of Bilotta's lawsuit, E.J. Elliott denied allegations of discriminatory hiring practices at Gencor Industries.
"It's absolutely a lie," E.J. Elliott said when asked about Bilotta's claim that the company sought job candidates who fit a certain racial profile.
"These are fabrications after-the-fact of (Bilotta's) departure," the former CEO added.
Three weeks after a judge declined to dismiss Bilotta's age discrimination lawsuit, Gencor Industries informed the court it had reached a settlement with its former human resources director.
The terms of that settlement were not disclosed in court records.
In 2009, Gencor Industries reached another undisclosed settlement with Sergio Falcon, a temporary machine operator who claims he was denied a permanent due to his physical disabilities.
The EEOC determined that Gencor Industries violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by requiring job applicants to submit their personal medical information and undergo a medical examination.
Shipley files EEOC complaint

In early November, Shipley filed a complaint with the EEOC and the Florida Commission on Human Relations alleging discrimination based on race and unlawful retaliation. 
In addition to the “KKK” hood incident, Shipley claims he was subjected to racially disparaging comments from his supervisor.
Crandall denies making such inappropriate statements to Shipley or other Gencor Industries workers.
"I never called anyone any racial slurs," Crandall told News 6.  "It's just not true."
Whenever Shipley looks at the photo he took at his former jobsite, he says he remains in disbelief.
"I thought something like this might happen in the rural country or backwoods," said Shipley.  "But not here in Orlando.  Not in this day and time.  Not with a company like Gencor."

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades. Mike joined News 6 just as Florida officials began counting hanging chads in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election. Since then, he has covered some of the biggest news events in Central Florida.