The Anchorage Equal Rights Commission has found that a Tlingit woman was discriminated against because of her race at a Wal-Mart store in Eagle River.
Paula Starbard, 27, told the commission she waited nearly three hours at the store in June 2001 when she tried to return a video game. The commission issued its preliminary ruling in the case last week.
At a hearing in March last year, Starbard testified she never got a refund or an exchange and spent nearly three hours waiting for help at the store, feeling ignored and barely tolerated.
"It was embarrassing," she told a three-member panel. "They treated me like I was making trouble."
Another customer testified that she heard a store employee refer to Starbard as "Mexican or something."
The commission panel found that Wal-Mart "discriminated against (Starbard) on the basis of her race or perceived race."
The panel denied Starbard's claim that she was also discriminated against because of her age, however. It likewise found no merit in her claim that the store retaliated against her by releasing her personnel and medical records.
Starbard was hired at the same store in August 2001 and worked there less than a month before filing her complaint, she told the hearing panel last year. She was separating from her husband, didn't have a car and could walk to the store from her parents' home, according to her testimony.
Wal-Mart plans to file an objection with the commission, said Marty Heires, a spokesman at corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.
The company trains employees to treat all customers with respect and clearly posts its anti-discrimination policies, Heires said.
"We're concerned about this charge," he said. "We don't want any of our customers to feel they were discriminated (against) in any way."
The same hearing panel that issued the ruling will review Wal-Mart's arguments, as well as last year's testimony, said Barbara Jones, the commission executive director. The panel will issue a final order in May at the earliest, she said.
Starbard didn't complain about the incident at that time because she didn't want to be a bother, she testified.
"You don't want to go around telling people. It's something that hits you close to home," she testified.
Starbard, born in Hoonah, lives in Anchorage and now works at the Alaska Native Medical Center. Her father, Maj. Howard Starbard, is the administrative commander of the Alaska State Troopers.
The company is instructed to pay Starbard's attorney fees up to $10,000, and refund the cost of the $43 game plus 5 percent annual interest accrued from June 16, 2001.
Of the roughly 1,000 inquiries the commission gets in a year, about 100 are investigated, Jones said. Only cases with "substantial evidence" of discrimination go to public hearing. Two cases in the last year, including Starbard's, got a hearing.