HOUSTON The 11 News I-Team found that Houston-area employees are complaining like never before about harassment and intimidation complaints that often are about racist and sexual jokes or pranks.

Since 2005, those types of complaints to the Houston office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have shot up 100 percent, going from 118 in 2005 to 239 to 2009.

We see a spike in all sorts of discrimination claims when the economy is cruddy, said Martin Ebel, the deputy director of the EEOC s Houston region.

Ebel said another factor may be that more workers are now aware they can report what offends them.

When you ve made a racial joke, you ve crossed the line, said Ebel.

One place such complaints originated was a tire store in Pearland. What some ex-employees said happened there raises the question of where to draw the line between goofing around and being offensive.

Mario Sereni said he worked at the store two years ago and said one co-worker was known for his locker-room-style behavior.

I ve seen him where he slapped a few guys on the butts...(The) touching and pranks on me and some of the other employees constantly went on, no matter what we told this guy, stop, leave us alone, said Sereni .

Another ex-employee, Johnny Summers, who no longer lives in Texas, said racial and sexual language made working at the Pearland store intolerable.

It turned my stomach, I couldn t stand to be around it any longer so I resigned and started my own company here in Atlanta, said Summers .

The worst, they said, were the jokes.

I wasn t there when the noose incident happened, but everyone there knew (about) the noose incident, said Sereni.

What was the noose incident?

Another ex-employee, who didn t want to be named, said he was the target of a prank involving a noose.

A real rope and made a hangmen s noose out of it, said the ex- employee. (A co-worker) takes it and hangs it on my name on the peg board. Everybody s laughing and thinking it s funny.

But the ex-employee said he didn t think it was funny at all. He said some days later, he told a district manager who visited the store.

And I said, Yeah, I m kind of shook up about the incident. What incident? I said, You heard about the hangmen s noose? He said, Yeah I heard about that, you guys play too much. So I said, Is that all you can say about it, is that we play too much? the ex-employee recalled.

Because he said he felt nothing was being done, the ex-employee eventually hired a lawyer and filed a complaint with the EEOC. He later reached a confidential settlement with the company, Firestone.

Firestone would not comment directly on his allegations or on those made by the other two ex-employees interviewed by 11 News. They also would not comment on similar allegations made in sworn statements from three other men who worked at the store.

But Firestone told us by e-mail: Any allegation of discrimination is taken seriously and thoroughly investigated. Appropriate action is then taken, when such action is warranted.

They have to investigate, they have to take action that s designed to stop the problem, and they have to do it quickly, said Ebel at the EEOC.

But did Firestone do that to the satisfaction of the EEOC?

We began an investigation in that case but the parties reached an amicable resolution on their own, Ebel said.

Because the ex-employee and Firestone settled, the EEOC said it took no action and didn t feel the allegations warranted further investigation.

Now, Mario Sereni and his attorney are taking action.

We ve already filed a charge with the EEOC, said his attorney, Deborah Bryant.

The EEOC said not all allegations are found to be serious violations of federal discrimination law. But when they are, employers can face big fines.

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