Big-box hardware store supplies discrimination

by Laura Savage

The Bayview District Lowe’s is in the spotlight, but not for its stellar deals or quality customer service. Six plaintiffs have filed suit against the big-box hardware store, claiming racial and gender discrimination, prejudice, differential treatment and unlawful termination.

Angela Alioto, plaintiff suing LoweGÇÖs Mel Simpson, Raynetta Hart, Annette Lewis, Ceasar Ausejo, Denza M. Young 032213 byAmong the complaints, plaintiffs say that the Bayview Lowe’s store repeatedly under-trained, fired and under-paid workers of color. It also states that when requests or complaints were made in the store by those employees, disciplinary retaliation was practiced by supervisors and upper management.

For its side, a spokeswoman on behalf of the Lowe’s company, in a statement given to the San Francisco Chronicle in an article dated March 23, 2013, said it hasn’t reviewed the suit as of yet. She furthered claimed that Lowe’s was in “compliance with the hiring agreement made with San Francisco.”

“It’s just a flat out lie. The corporation received the … complaint. It’s a prerequisite to filing,” says Angela Alioto, attorney for the plaintiffs in the suit.

The lawsuit also claims that the retailer led the City to believe that it would hire local residents and keep them on as employees. What is happening, according to the plaintiffs in the suit and others not named in the suit, is the company hired African American and Latino residents then fired them shortly after the store opened.

A spokeswoman on behalf of the Lowe’s company claimed that Lowe’s was in “compliance with the hiring agreement made with San Francisco.”

“It’s called fraud,” said Alioto. “Getting a contract based on a promise. Once they get the contract, they don’t feel like they need to fulfill [the terms of the contract]. And it’s been going on for years in San Francisco.”

Promises for the future

The hiring contract was a condition put in place by the city of San Francisco when it entered into an agreement with Home Depot, who previously owned the site on Bayshore Boulevard. Lowe’s bought the site and contract from Home Depot, thus inheriting the contract.

Conditions included a “$75,000 contribution to workforce training and $100,000 to San Francisco’s day labor program.” In addition, Lowe’s agreed to hiring 75 percent of its workforce from San Francisco.

“They specifically told us, ‘It’s not a job, it’s a career,’” remembers Mel Simpson, former Lowe’s plumbing sales specialist, about how employment with Lowe’s was presented. “They didn’t even want us to use the word job. They said career.”

Mayor Gavin Newsom cuts ribbon at Bayview LoweGÇÖs 110410 by Justin Sullivan, GettyAt the 2010 opening ceremony for the first Lowe’s store in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom spoke of Lowe’s commitment to help revitalize the Bayview Hunters Point community.

“Bayshore Boulevard has served as a vital home improvement commercial corridor in San Francisco for decades, and this new Lowe’s will foster the growth and revitalization of the neighborhood and boost our local economy,” said Newsom.

Reality hits

Right after the opening, things just started changing, claims Simpson. He says that the practice of firing African Americans was an ongoing situation.

“The percentage seemed to be kind of balanced when the store opened,” says Simpson. “But shortly after, people started disappearing like flies. A lot of them were African American. Everybody who came to work there was in fear. It was like working on a plantation.”

Lowe’s is subject to the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) because it employs more than 500 employees and therefore can be sued if thought to be in violation.

“They can have 100 percent Black people, but you can’t fire people and replace them with white [new hires] … and make up a lie about their performance” as a means to get rid of them, said Alioto. “This really was using people to get what [Lowe’s] wanted.”

Not only were Blacks being fired without just cause, they were being subject to humiliation and harassment by management.

“Everybody who came to work there was in fear. It was like working on a plantation.”

Another plaintiff, who has opted to be anonymous (Plaintiff X) for fear of retaliation and the affect on any possible future employment, claims she was harassed after she repeatedly requested more training to do her job competently. Her training requests were denied and she was subject to humiliation by supervisors.

She claims she was accused of misplacing – or stealing – money and made to search for the missing amount, then threatened with firing if it wasn’t found. The money was later found to have been put away by a late-shift supervisor. No apology was given.

Not only were Blacks being fired without just cause, they were being subject to humiliation and harassment by management.

“Immediately I was ostracized. I was isolated, sent into another room to do projects for days at a time so I was out of the office [and therefore] wasn’t able to get the training [that was being] given to others. That went on for months,” she says. “I had been targeted by all the upper management, one after the other.”

She had been unemployed for two years when she was hired by Lowe’s. She felt it a good move to have the opportunity to work in her community.

She told herself, “If this is a Lowe’s, I’m going to apply because I’m right here in the community. I was just excited.”

Like Simpson, Plaintiff X says she was promised a career and opportunity to advance within the company.

Not only is racial discrimination an issue in the suit, but gender bias and discrimination is mentioned as well.

Although not being claimed by a Bayview Lowe’s store employee, an exclusionary culture is the case at other Lowe’s stores, mainly the Union City location named in the suit.

Raynetta Hart, a five-year Lowe’s employee, claims that during her tenure as human resources manager in the Union City Lowe’s she was purposely left out of important senior staff meetings.

Not only is racial discrimination an issue in the suit, but gender bias and discrimination is mentioned as well.

As the only female senior manager, she was not allowed to attend senior staff meetings. When she objected and voiced her disapproval of the practice, two other women were hired on as managers, but she was still subject to constant harassment.

“I always felt left out,” says Hart. “Especially after that happened … I just felt like I was a secretary as opposed to being a manager. I kind of felt like the woman wasn’t allowed to be part of the group. I was being subjected to treatment by this person that wasn’t appropriate to the work environment.”

Hart added that when she got her human resources supervisors involved, complaints were swept under the rug.

Re-occurring themes

What seems to be the running theme is that Lowe’s policy is to overwork, mistreat then get rid of workers that demand respect and hold the company to its promises.

The Lowe’s website boasts a mission and values statement with the following:

“We’re better able to do what’s right for our customers and our communities by doing what’s right for our employees. In our workplaces, we strive to treat employees with respect and support while maintaining a safe work environment.”

Since the company has been made aware of the suit, Plaintiff X says, “They’ve actually been civil. I thought to myself, ‘This is the way you should’ve been treating me all along.’”

Not only has the Bayview store seemingly lost sight of its mission and values, it seems the intent was never to extend these values to women or employees of color past an initial time period.

“There’s no way that there’s a time limit on how [long] African Americans or minorities can be hired [or kept as employees]. I’d be shocked if there was a time limit. That would defeat the whole purpose” of the hiring contract, said Alioto.

Not only has the Bayview store seemingly lost sight of its mission and values, it seems the intent was never to extend these values to women or employees of color past an initial time period.

What’s true is that these plaintiffs believed what they were told when hired by Lowe’s: They were gaining a career and joining a corporate family that would treat them with respect and value them. Unfortunately the reality was far from that, according to the plaintiffs.

“My workmanship there was great. I worked very hard there. I thought I had the American dream,” said Simpson. “I can’t believe this kind of stuff [is happening] in the 21st century, in this day and age!”

“These are hard working people with a great track record,” said Alioto. “That’s really important. These are not people coming in late. These are people working their heart out and loving it. Then out of nowhere get fired, and the white guy with no expertise comes in. It’s devastating, in my opinion, for the community. It just makes things worse. They would rather have never been hired than to be treated that way.”

Laura Savage is a graduating senior in journalism at San Francisco State University and is interning with the SF Bay View this semester. She can be reached at lsavage26@gmail.com.