Furloughed B&H workers accuse company of discrimination
Some furloughed employees at B&H Photo Video fear that they recently lost their jobs for good — and claim it’s because they reported unsafe working conditions during the coronavirus outbreak.
After complaining about the company’s handling of the pandemic back in March — including packed indoor prayer services for its ultra-religious Jewish workers — some workers have spotted what look like postings for their jobs online. It’s a position they wouldn’t be in, they suspect, if they were part of the company’s inner circle of Hasidic Jewish staffers, who they say get special treatment.
“They definitely used COVID as a cover to eliminate some of us,” said Dan Wagner, a nearly six-year veteran of the famed New York tech retailer, which is known for its conveyor-belt system of moving merchandise around its three-story megastore on West 34th Street and Ninth Avenue.
Wagner, a professional photographer who worked as a product description writer for B&H, says he believes he has not been asked back to work after he raised a fuss in March about the daily prayer services, which took place in the company’s lunch rooms.
“I told HR that people shouldn’t congregate,” Wagner said, adding that B&H later announced in a newsletter that two workers who had attended the prayers had died from the virus in late March.
Wagner also repeatedly pressed B&H for information after learning that a fellow staffer on another floor had contracted the virus, he said. “I believe they retaliated against me for simply asking whether I was in close contact with someone with COVID.”
William Cannon, also a B&H content writer, says he believes he isn’t being brought back because he asked for permission to work from home in March. “I told [HR] that I don’t feel safe at the office, leaving in the packed elevators and working so close to others,” Cannon said.
Cannon, who is diabetic, was also unnerved by the prayer services because they were held in the same rooms where he kept his insulin, which needs to be refrigerated. “There were 60 people packed in there and I’d have to step over them to get to the refrigerator,” he said. “It was uncomfortable for me.”
B&H told Cannon to use his paid time off until it came up with a work-from-home plan, which it did about a week later. “B&H was very slow to take the pandemic seriously,” he said. “I took all my PTO days because they didn’t have a plan.”
Cannon and Wagner say they were furloughed along with about 400 other workers — about 20 percent of B&H’s staff — on April 27. The company notified workers via e-mail that they would be paid for 2.5 days and receive health benefits through May 31.
Cannon has been unable to pay for his insulin medication since June and was forced to share insulin with his diabetic uncle, with whom he lives.
Then in August, after months of no communication from the company, Cannon saw an Indeed.com posting for a mobile tech consumer writer for B&H, which was what he did for the company. The posting also called for gaming expertise, which Cannon says his manager knows he possesses.
“I took this as their way of getting rid of the people they didn’t want,” he said of the job posting. “It was so sudden with no followups. It seemed like a way to lay people off without telling them they were laid off.”
Wagner, meanwhile, saw two listings for his job as photography writer on the company’s Web site, most recently on Oct. 15.
B&H has not told the men either way what its plans are and they have not asked, but the megastore reopened to walk-ins on July 1.
After the furloughs came down, Wagner e-mailed his B&H managers to ask what percentage of laid off staffers were Hasidic, which the company declined to specify. That’s when Wagner, who is Jewish but not Hasidic, says he filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that B&H discriminates against non-Hasidic employees.
Cannon, who is African-American, said he, too, is considering filing a discrimination complaint against B&H.
Wagner declined to share a copy of his complaint with The Post, but has shared e-mails with the agency showing that he filed one.
B&H, which Blimie and Herman Schreiber opened in 1973, declined to comment on the job listings or Wagner’s discrimination complaint, except to say that it “welcomes the EEOC’s findings.”
“B&H was one of the last retailers to furlough employees,” the company’s chief marketing officer, Jeff Gerstel, told The Post in a statement.
“We’re proudly bringing back to work furloughed employees every week while we navigate these challenging times. We cannot respond to individual employee matters.”
Wagner claims B&H’s Hasidic Jewish staff get special perks, including what he believes are company-sponsored shuttle buses to help them commute to and from work.
The shuttles, which cost employees $2.75 a ride, are not offered to non-Hasidic employees, he said.
B&H declined to comment on its role in providing the buses, but a person close to the company noted that the retailer was named New York’s 14th best employer for 2020 by Forbes in August.
The popular retailer has been sued twice by the federal government for discriminatory practices, most recently in 2016 when the Department of Labor accused it of only hiring Hispanic men for entry-level positions at its former Brooklyn Navy warehouse, and then subjecting them to harassment and unsanitary conditions, including inoperable bathrooms that were separate from those used by the facility’s non-Hispanic workers. The complaint also accused the company of not hiring women, black and Asian workers at the Brooklyn facility, which has since been moved to New Jersey.
The family-owned business “categorically denied” the 2016 allegations but paid $3.22 million to settle the case and “avoid the distraction of litigation,” it said at the time.
Legal experts like Carolyn Richmond say they have been warning employers since April to take precautions not to discriminate when rehiring furloughed workers.
“The question becomes why is the employer not bringing an employee back who was let go simply because of COVID restrictions and not job performance,” said Richmond, chair of the hospitality practice group at Fox Rothschild LLP. “It is certainly suspect to replace these workers with new hires.”
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