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Department of Labor Sues B&H Photo Over Discriminatory Practices [UPDATED]

B&H Photo's flagship store in Manhattan (image via WIkipedia)
B&H Photo Video’s flagship store in Manhattan (image via WIkipedia)

The US Department of Labor (DOL) is suing B&H Photo Video for violating federal requirements to provide equal opportunity to and fair treatment of workers at one of its warehouses in Brooklyn. On Wednesday, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) filed a complaint with the Office of Administrative Law that describes instances of worker harassment at the electronics retailer’s Navy Yards warehouse and notes that the company’s hiring, compensation, and promotion practices there are discriminatory. Specifically, the 33-page report describes how Hispanic employees at that location are treated unfairly compared to white workers, as are female, black, and Asian jobseekers. In total, it outlines 15 violations.

“The facility’s workforce is divided along racial lines, with management, supervisory, and mid-level positions filled predominantly by White men,” DOL’s attorneys note. “Hispanic workers receive disproportionately lower compensation in comparison to fellow White workers, and the promotion of non-White workers into mid- and upper-level positions is scant.”

B&H spokesperson Henry Posner declined to comment “because this is an ongoing unresolved legal matter,” he wrote in an email. The lawsuit arrives at a particularly charged time for the company, which has recently been under scrutiny for alleged mistreatment of its workers (not for the first time). OFCCP is, in fact, the second DOL agency to cite B&H for violations: just last week the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) fined the company $32,000, citing dangerous conditions at both its Brooklyn warehouses after workers called for on-site investigations. B&H is contesting all of OSHA’s claims; it also seems to be penalizing workers for speaking out and demanding change: on Tuesday, managers at the company’s Manhattan basement warehouse suddenly fired seven employees. As Martine Veliz, one worker sacked after 11 years with B&H, told Hyperallergic, the cleaners believe they lost their jobs because they expressed support for an ongoing, worker-launched campaign to form a union. B&H has not responded to inquiries on this matter.

The OFCCP lawsuit concerning the Navy Yards warehouse results from a regular, scheduled compliance review in January 2013 that consisted of workplace walkthroughs and inspections of employer-provided data, including information on hires and benefits. The assessment examined a two-year period beginning in January 2011, but the final document notes that all the violations still stand to the present day. During this period, DOL said in a statement, B&H “exclusively hired Hispanic men” to fill entry-level jobs, contributing to its “complete exclusion of female employees” and a “near exclusion” of black and Asian employees. The total lack of female representation in the building is underscored by the fact that the warehouse does not even provide a separate restroom for women, OFCCP said. Furthermore, facilities for the men are segregated: Hispanic workers have to go to separate restrooms from white workers that are often unsanitary, or simply inoperable.

According to the report, the Navy Yards warehouse usually employs at least 150 workers; for such a workforce, standards set by statistics for the New York City metropolitan area indicate that there should at least be 15 female hires, 18 African American hires, and five Asian hires. B&H has apparently also failed to post employment openings with New York State and has no formal hiring policy, instead relying on employee referral and word-of-mouth recruitment. The state, therefore, was unable to refer thousands of registered and qualified female, black, and Asian applicants during the report’s review period. The lawsuit considers all these individuals victims of discrimination based on their gender and/or race.

Of those B&H hired, the report found that workers of color are still paid “a significantly lower rate” compared to white workers and are excluded from some “perks available to White employees,” even if they have similar job duties and time with the company. These workers also have less opportunity to advance: OFCCP found a “near-total exclusion” of Hispanics from higher-level clerical, managerial, and supervisory positions. In the report’s examined period, the company promoted just one Hispanic worker to a clerical job — out of a qualified pool of 202 Hispanic incumbents (0.5%). In comparison, it promoted 23 non-minorities from a qualified pool of 69 incumbents (33%).

As a federal contractor, B&H is expected to comply with certain equal employment opportunity regulations. On its website, the company maintains that “B&H employs an incredibly diverse group of people, and our many cultures and languages not only lend color to our business, but enable us to offer familiar references and — of course — languages, to our many visitors from around the world.” OFCCP’s findings contrast starkly with this statement.

“Federal contractors’ workforces should reflect the diversity of the American people, the people who are ultimately footing the bill for the goods and services that contractors provide to the government,” OFCCP Director Patricia A. Shiu said in a release. “B&H fell far short of this responsibility and created deplorable working conditions for employees at its Brooklyn warehouse. This agency is prepared to use every tool at its disposal to ensure that no federal contractors engage in discrimination against women and people of color.”

The DOL lawsuit also charges B&H with instances of harassment at the Brooklyn Navy Yards site. These align with the stories that many workers at all three of the company’s locations have come forth and relayed over the past few months.

“Specifically, B&H supervisors and other employees at the worksite subjected Hispanic employees to severe and/or pervasive verbal abuse — including excessive yelling, racist remarks, and degrading comments — because of the Hispanic employees’ national origin, race, and/or color,” DOL’s attorneys write. Any complaints of such incidents, they add, were ignored.

In addition to seeking relief for all those affected, OFCCP is requiring that B&H develop formal hiring and compensation policies. The company must implement, in writing, a zero-tolerance policy against harassment, threats, intimidation, retaliation, and coercion, to be adopted and posted — in English and in Spanish — at all three of its sites. OFCCP also demands that the company provide its managers, supervisors, and employees with training on equal opportunity and on ways to identify and prevent harassment cases.

If B&H loses the lawsuit and fails to provide the necessary relief, OFCCP will request that its government contracts be terminated and that the company be debarred from entering future ones. The awarded amounts under its current contracts are in excess of $46 million.

Update, 3/1: B&H has issued a statement on its website denying all the allegations, describing them as “far from factual.”

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