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Amazon faces racial discrimination and sexual harassment complaint
03/03/2021
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Amazon.com Fulfillment Center, Las Vegas

A senior manager of Amazon is suing the technology giant for a “systemic pattern of insurmountable discrimination” that routinely “de-levels” black employees in corporate roles, resulting in lower compensation and a longer path to advancement.

Charlotte Newman, a business development head at Amazon Web Services, is seeking an award of damages for emotional distress, lost wages, and punitive damages.

Newman alleges that the online retailer has a practice of hiring black employees into lower-paying roles than they are qualified for and then promoting them at a slower rate than their white colleagues.

A Harvard Business School graduate and former adviser to US Senator Cory Booker, Newman applied for a role in Amazon Web Services’ Public Policy team in 2017, but she was offered a lower position than the one she initially interviewed for.

“Within months of starting at the company, she in fact was assigned and doing the work of a senior manager-level employee while still being paid at and having the title of the manager level,” according to the lawsuit.

“To make matters worse, and in defiance of the anti-discrimination laws, Ms Newman was paid significantly less than her white co-workers, particularly in valuable Amazon stock.”

The plaintiff had to wait more than two-and-a-half years for a promotion to the level that she had already been performing work, according to court documents.

Recent data from the tech giant shows that black employees account for 26.5% of its US workforce, compared to 32.1% of workers who identify as white. At the managerial level, white employees fill 56.4% of manager positions, compared to 10.6% who are black.

Regarding gender, women account for 44.6% of staff at Amazon globally, but just 29.3% of managerial roles. Amazon’s top leadership team did not have a single black executive among its members before Alicia Boler Davis joined the multinational company in August 2020.

The tech company claims that including base salary, cash bonuses, and stock, women earn 100 cents for every dollar that men earn performing the same role, while minorities earn 99.2 cents for every dollar white employees earn performing the same job.

Amazon still treats black employees like second-class citizens

Newman’s lawsuit, filed in Washington, DC, federal court, also alleges that the Seattle-based company’s dismissive attitude toward black women left her vulnerable to racial and sexual harassment by coworkers for years.

Newman describes how one colleague said she looked “like a gorilla”, while a supervisor remarked that she was “aggressive” and “just scary”.

The lawsuit also details the sexual harassment of Newman by a male co-worker over several years, including allegations that he pulled on her hair. The co-worker was terminated in October 2020.

Although the plaintiff complained about “vile and aggressive sexual assault and harassment” to Amazon’s HR department, the company failed to keep her updated on the status of any investigations or offer further support, the suit alleges.

Newman is being represented by Douglas H Wigdor, founding partner at Wigdor LLP, who has also represented women in suits against former movie producer Harvey Weinstein and Fox News for alleged harassment and discrimination.

“As one of the largest and most powerful companies in the world, Amazon has an obligation to lead by example and promote a level playing field for all workers regardless of their race,” Wigdor said in a statement.

“Sadly, despite its emphasis on innovation, Amazon still treats black employees like second-class citizens by shutting them out of high-level corporate roles, paying them less than similarly situated white employees, and dismissing their concerns about equity and safety.

“Because of Ms Newman’s bravery, we expect other current and former black employees at Amazon will now have a voice to stand up to this discrimination and no longer suffer in silence.”

We do not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind and thoroughly investigate all claims and take appropriate action

A spokesperson for the company told IEL: “Amazon works hard to foster a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture, and these allegations do not reflect those efforts or our values.

“We do not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind and thoroughly investigate all claims and take appropriate action. We are currently investigating the new allegations included in this lawsuit.”

Newman’s lawsuit also alleges that Amazon’s mistreatment of its black workers is not limited to its corporate offices but extends to those black employees in its warehouses and fulfilment facilities who advocate for a safer, more inclusive workplace.

In February, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit in state court in Manhattan alleging Amazon had failed to keep employees at two New York City facilities safe during the covid-19 pandemic.

The complaint alleged Amazon had a “flagrant disregard” of the need to protect workers and accused the company of illegally retaliating when employees raised concerns about conditions at the Staten Island fulfilment and Queens distribution centres.

“Throughout the historic pandemic, Amazon has repeatedly and persistently failed to comply with its obligation to institute reasonable and adequate measures to protect its workers,” the lawsuit said.

“Amazon has cut corners in complying with the particular requirements that would most jeopardise its sales volume and productivity rates, thereby ensuring outsize profits at an unprecedented rate of growth for the company and its shareholders.”

Amazon filed a federal lawsuit four days before James’ suit claiming the attorney general was overstepping her authority and was applying “an inconsistent and unfair” standard as federal labour laws took precedence over a state’s.

A spokesperson for the tech giant said the company “cared deeply” for the health and safety of its employees and that the complaint from New York’s prosecutor was not “an accurate picture of Amazon’ s industry-leading response to the pandemic”.

There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda

Amazon is also in a fight with workers at its Birmingham, Alabama warehouse where staff are trying to organise the company’s first unionised workplace in the US.

Nearly 6,000 workers at the Bessemer fulfilment centre are expected to vote by mail-in ballots by 29 March following months of legal wrangling with the company.

In February, the National Labor Relations Board denied Amazon’s bid to delay the vote, stating voting could be conducted by mail despite the company’s insistence that the election should take place in person in the warehouse car park.

Amazon has been criticised for tactics aimed at discouraging the push for unionisation. The company has been contacting employees by text message claiming workers will “be giving up your right to speak for yourself” and that “unions are a business”. It has also directed staff to its own anti-union website DoItWithoutDues.com.

Although not explicitly mentioning Amazon by name, US President Joe Biden appeared to lend his support to the e-commerce site’s workers in a recent statement.

“Today and over the next few days and weeks workers in Alabama – and all across America – are voting on whether to organise a union in their workplace. This is a vitally important choice,” said the president.

“There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda. No supervisor should confront employees about their preferences.”