US

3 black former Kraft Heinz workers filed a $30 million lawsuit claiming they faced racist abuse

Three black former Kraft-Heinz employees in California filed a $30 million lawsuit against the company claiming they experienced blatant racist abuse and threats, and faced retaliation when they informed their superiors.

The lawsuit filed Thursday by Sanford Heisler Sharp on behalf of former employees Alex Horn, Lance Aytman and Keith Hooker claims they were harassed and discriminated against by coworkers and supervisors for years during their employment. 

The 41-page document, filed in Eastern District of California, argues that for the plaintiffs, the popular food company ‘serves as a reminder of the years of anti-black racism’ plaintiffs experienced including notes that said: ‘No n*****s as coordinators,’ ‘All n*****s must go,’ ‘Quit or die n*****s,’ and  swastikas. 

When the three men and other black employees at the dairy factory in Tulare, California, confronted management about the behavior, they were told to ‘keep their heads down or else they could join the unemployment line’

In June 2018, Horn and another black employee found notes in their lockers that said, ‘Sorry n****r’ and ‘Quit or die n****r’ 

The threatening notes came several months after gunshots were fired outside the plant

The threatening notes came several months after gunshots were fired outside the plant 

In April 2018, Aytman found a note in his locker that read ¿All niggers must go"

In April 2018, Aytman found a note in his locker that read ‘All niggers must go’

The plant’s leadership ‘even claimed to be under orders from the Company’s corporate offices to avoid investigating the Tulare Plant’s rampant racism,’ according to the filing.

The plaintiffs allege that the company ‘was also complicit in perpetuating the Plant’s anti-black atmosphere through its hiring and promotion practices, which allowed subjectivity, bias and racial prejudice to dictate personnel decisions.’

The men allege that the ‘anti-black atmosphere’ caused their mental health to deteriorate and cost them earnings.

The filing includes photos of threatening racist notes found by several black employees. In April 2018, Aytman found a note in his locker that read ‘All n*****s must go.’ In June 2018, Horn and another black employee found notes in their lockers that said, ‘Sorry n****r’ and ‘Quit or die n****r.’

Horn began at Kraft-Heinz in 2011 as a temp and joined the company full-time later in the year. From 2012 to 2013, Horn also served as a Back-up Coordinator, which came with added responsibilities but did not lead to an increase in his earnings.

The black Latino man alleges that he suffered years of racist torment which led to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health concerns. Horn was forced to take a medical leave of absence in September 2019 and was then fired during his unpaid leave.

His PTSD and depression led to divorce and continues to cause him ‘anxiety attacks, nightmares, insomnia’ and ‘crying episodes,’ according to the complaint.

Swastikas were drawn on the lockers of multiple black employees and was only addressed after black workers confronted management in 2012

Swastikas were drawn on the lockers of multiple black employees and was only addressed after black workers confronted management in 2012 

Aytman also began at Kraft-Heinz in 2011 through a temp agency. He worked at the company full-time in 2013. Aytman, who is black, claims he experienced years of racial discrimination and harassment which led to anxiety and depression.

The deterioration of his mental health led to a medical leave of absence in July 2019 during which he was fired.

Hooker worked at the dairy plant from 1996 until he was forced to resign in June 2018. After 22 years of racist abuse, Hooker decided to leave the company just a few years away from his planned retirement ‘noticing how the work environment had changed him as a person.’ But since leaving the company, he has struggled to find a steady job.

All three men were scared away from the job after receiving death threats in 2018, the lawsuit says.

They claim they were eager to join the reputable company for the stable work, reasonable wage, opportunity for overtime, and chance for professional growth, but allege that the toll it took on their mental health was too much. 

‘The Tulare Plant was rife with anti-black slurs, innuendos, threats, and discrimination’, the suit says.

Horn, Aytman and Hooker claim that the color of their skin acted as a hindrance as they strived toward promotions and raises.

Keith Hooker left his job at Kraft-Heinz after 22 years due to racist abuse that escalated to death threats several years before of his planned retirement

Keith Hooker left his job at Kraft-Heinz after 22 years due to racist abuse that escalated to death threats several years before of his planned retirement 

The lawsuit alleges that while the plaintiffs and other employees continuously informed management of the derogatory treatment and were told that the corporate office was aware of their complaints, nothing was done. Instead, the harassment escalated.

Allegedly, the lawsuit says there were several instances when the company conducted ‘pro forma investigations’ that were — at best, clumsily and at worst, intentionally — botched. Plaintiffs’ suggestions for change were uniformly rejected, although the reasons for the rejections often shifted.’

The ‘toxic culture was fostered, encouraged, and condoned by HR and management at the Plant and the Company,’ according to the filing.

Horn, Aytman and Hooker listed numerous specific instances of abuse, threats, and vandalism. They allege that N-word was repeatedly used in reference to or around the black employees when management was present.

In 2012, they claim, swastikas were drawn on the lockers of multiple black employees and the incident was only addressed after black workers confronted management. The company responded by holding a luncheon during which Frank Woodson, a black Plant Manager from a different site, ‘lectured black employees to keep their heads down.’

Later that year someone allegedly, ‘broke into and vandalized Horn and another black employee’s vehicles parked in the Tulare Plant’s parking lot, and urinated on Horn’s front tire.’

According to the filing, several anonymous letters were sent to Plant Manager Burns. One supposedly ‘named non-black employees, including former-Coordinator Findley, who publicly made ‘jokes’ invoking racial stereotypes— for example, not ‘say[ing] chicken in front of’ Horn, bringing him ‘grape soda,’ and claiming he ‘smells like chicken grease or coco butter.’

Kraft-Heinz is the third-largest food and beverage business in North America and the fifth-largest in the world

Kraft-Heinz is the third-largest food and beverage business in North America and the fifth-largest in the world

The filing also names another non-black employee, ‘Tim Stemple, (who) wore a sanitation mask that had been vandalized with ‘No n*****s in Culture’ written on it. (Culture was one of the Plant’s departments.)’

Stemple, who drove a truck displaying the Confederate flag, was issued a new mask but not reprimanded, the filing states.

Another anonymous letter that circulated in 2016 ‘note criticized Aytman as ‘lazy’ and ‘a cancer,’ while bringing up his race.’ The next year his car was the sole vehicle vandalized in the company parking lot. When he asked security for the surveillance footage, he was informed by Head of Security Harold Gonzalez that the chip containing that footage ‘was the only one of the five memory cards that had been destroyed,’ according to the filing.

The blatant racism took an alarming turn in late 2017 when ‘a non-black coworker commented that he had ‘enough ammo to shoot everyone at the Plant twice.’ He was allowed an early retirement rather than face disciplinary action, lawsuit claims.

Gunshots were fired outside the building a few months later, but never connected to a culprit. Then in April 2018, Aytman found this threatening, but management said they couldn’t do much about. The threats continued to circulate in June 2018, when Horn and another black employee found notes in their lockers.

The next month, a black employee allegedly found graffiti in the same handwriting as the death threats in the bathroom. But management never followed up on the threats, the plaintiff allege.

In the filing, the three men describe years of blatant and serious racist abuse and discrimination that they claim Kraft-Heinz never properly handled despite being well aware.

A spokesperson for the company claims that they were aware of the complaints made by the three men and investigated them several years ago when they took place

A spokesperson for the company claims that they were aware of the complaints made by the three men and investigated them several years ago when they took place

A spokesperson for Kraft-Heinz responded to the lawsuit, saying the company ‘prides itself on creating diverse and inclusive workplaces, and we have a zero tolerance policy for discrimination or harassment of any kind.’

They insist that they take such allegations seriously explaining ‘we take immediate and swift action, including conducting a thorough investigation and implementing corrective actions if behaviors contradictory to our values are found.’

Speaking on the specific claims filed by Horn, Aytman and Hooker, the spokesperson said, ‘The allegations at the Tulare plant are several years old and as soon as we were made aware, we undertook an extensive investigation, including cooperating with law enforcement, to ensure that any behavior that violated our policies, if uncovered, was put to an end.’

‘Since then, there have been no other allegations of racial discrimination or harassment at the Tulare plant.’

The three former Kraft-Heinz employees are seeking more than $30 million in damages between them.   

The thirteen counts in the lawsuit include, creating a hostile work environment, discrimination, retaliation, constructive discharge, failure to provide reasonable accommodations, failure to engage in interactive process, wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligent hiring, supervision, and/or retention of employees, failure of employer to permit former employee a copy of personnel records, failure of employer to permit former employee a copy of pay records, and violating the Ralph Civil Rights Act of 1976 and Tom Bane Civil Rights Act. 

Evidence listed in the $30 million lawsuit against Kraft-Heinz 

‘During Plaintiff Hooker’s first few years on the job, a White coworker who had grease on his face joked that he had stood ‘too close to Keith [Hooker].’

‘In 2012, Plaintiff Horn found a note in his personal locker that read, ‘No n*****s as coordinator.’ As the only black employee with the title of Back-up Coordinator, Horn’s solid work performance should have made him eligible for promotion to Coordinator. Kraft Heinz management took no corrective action after Horn turned in the note.’

‘Shortly thereafter, Horn’s direct supervisor, Walter Mendez, informed him that someone had also written ‘No n*****s as coordinator’ on a communal calendar in the Company breakroom. Horn was never informed of any investigatory or corrective action taken in response.’

‘In another 2012 incident, then-Coordinator Wayne Findley exclaimed in the Company cafeteria, ‘Look everybody, look at the way we are sitting—all the white people are here, all the Mexicans are there, and that table right there [pointing to Horn], let’s call them ‘others.’ After Horn complained to HR Coordinator Rigo Ceja, his coworkers told him to ‘let it be,’ that ‘Wayne was a good worker,’ and that Wayne ‘never really said anything that was racist; he just said ‘other.’

‘Also that year, swastikas were drawn on multiple black employees’ lockers. See infra. Only after black workers banded together and confronted management did the Company respond: by holding a luncheon where Frank Woodson, a black Plant Manager from a different site, lectured black employees to keep their heads down.’

‘At a Company holiday party in 2013, in full view of Plant Manager Laura Burns and other supervisors, Coordinator Matt Nino shouted, ‘Run, n****r, run!’ when he saw then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick on TV during a National Football League game. A black employee later complained to Plant Manager Burns about this incident. Upon information and belief, no corrective action was ever taken against Coordinator Nino, who maintained his supervisory role.’

‘This incident and other uses of the n-word were recounted in an anonymous letter to Plant Manager Burns, copies of which circulated around the Plant that year. The letter described how the ‘zero tolerance’ policy for racist remarks was not enforced. It also stated that ‘[i]f the blacks that work here don’t like being called black or others or whatever else they should all just quit because its [sic] going to happen . . . .’

‘This was the second anonymous letter that was addressed to Plant Manager Burns and that made the rounds at the Plant in 2013. The first letter named non-black employees, including former-Coordinator Findley, who publicly made ‘jokes’ invoking racial stereotypes— for example, not ‘say[ing] chicken in front of’ Horn, bringing him ‘grape soda,’ and claiming he ‘smells like chicken grease or coco butter.’

‘The harassment escalated further in 2012. Someone(s) broke into and vandalized Horn and another black employee’s vehicles parked in the Tulare Plant’s parking lot, and urinated on Horn’s front tire. Horn had to pay out of pocket to replace the stolen items and repair the damage.’

‘Around this period, ‘Alex [Horn] is a n****r and a snitch’ was written on the wall of the men’s bathroom. A maintenance mechanic informed Horn that management instructed him to paint over the graffiti since they ‘didn’t want to make a big fuss about it.’ Upon information and belief, no other steps were taken.’

‘Horn was regularly called a ‘rat’ and a ‘snitch’ for reporting racial harassment to HR. Even his former manager, Coordinator Findley, threatened him, ‘Snitches need stiches.’

‘Non-black employees flaunted racist expressive speech. In 2014, a non-black employee, Tim Stemple, wore a sanitation mask that had been vandalized with ‘No n*****s in Culture’ written on it. (Culture was one of the Plant’s departments.) Upon information and belief, management provided Stemple a new mask but issued no reprimand. In addition, Coordinator Findley regularly arrived at work with multiple Confederate flags or images of the same prominently displayed on his truck.’

‘In 2015, employees used the n-word in front of Horn and then snickered while looking at him to gauge his reaction.’

‘Around that time, then-Production Technician Pat Portner indicated that he did not want to be involved by telling Horn that he would not want to be labeled a ‘snitch’ for fear of ‘having a target on [his] back.’

‘That same year, after Supervisor Luis Valdez spilled black ink on his hands while standing close to Horn and another black employee, Coordinator Angel Jimenez remarked that Valdez, Horn, and the other black employee were ‘triplets,’ implying that Valdez was now the same color as Horn and the other black employee. Valdez laughed in response to Jimenez’s inappropriate comment.’

‘In 2016, Horn complained about his reassignment to night shifts, his constant placement on defunct machines, and the heightened scrutiny to which he was subjected. He perceived this treatment as discriminatory. Again, rather than address his concerns, Horn was told by his then-supervisors, James Romero and Luis Valdez, ‘if [you] don’t like it [you] can quit and get in the unemployment line.’

‘Another biased anonymous letter, this time directed at Plant Manager Chad Beuchel, circulated in 2016. The note criticized Aytman as ‘lazy’ and ‘a cancer,’ while bringing up his race.’

‘In August 2017, Aytman’s car—and his alone—was vandalized in the Company parking lot. When he asked Plant Manager Brian Bettencourt to see the security footage from that day, Bettencourt only showed him footage from different days. Later, Head of Security Harold Gonzalez informed Aytman that the memory card associated with the surveillance footage for thats day was the only one of the five memory cards that had been destroyed’

 ‘A few months later, Aytman complained about harassment in correspondence to HR representative Dave Bogan, who was based out of Kraft Heinz’s corporate office in Chicago. Aytman received no response to his communication.’

‘The pervasive racism took a more violent turn leading into 2018.’

‘In late 2017, a non-black coworker commented that he had ‘enough ammo to shoot everyone at the Plant twice.’ Upon information and belief, that employee was allowed an early retirement rather than Kraft Heinz imposing any discipline.’

‘In February 2018, shots were fired outside the Tulare Plant. The identity(ies) and motivation(s) of the shooter(s) were never determined.’

‘In April 2018, Aytman found a note in his locker that read ‘All n*****s must go.’ See infra. He immediately reported the note to Plant Manager Bettencourt, who said ‘[they] [could not] do much about it.’

‘In June 2018, Horn and another black employee found notes in their lockers that said, ‘Sorry n****r’ and ‘Quit or die n****r.’ See infra. Upon receiving the notes from Horn and the other worker, Plant management inspected the lockers of Hooker and Aytman to discover identical notes. (Hooker and Aytman were not at work that day.) To this day, Kraft Heinz’s management never informed Aytman of this development, which he only learned about from Horn.’

 ‘Plaintiffs did not understand these to be idle threats. In addition to the February 2018 shooting, coworkers, such as Portner and Valdez, had military and law enforcement backgrounds and frequently boasted about their firearm collections. In the days following the June 2018 death threat notes, Horn’s coworkers ominously called him a ‘snitch.’ 


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