Race in the Workplace: Myth or Ignored Injustice?

Author: Zachary Goldberg, UMBC                    _______________________________________________________________________________________

I used to think that racism and discrimination were inflamed talking points for politicians. This partly had to do with the bloated and visceral attention given to these issues by the NAACP and other organizations. And it is true that organizations and talking heads take advantage of the deep racial and socioeconomic divides that still exist in the United States for their own purposes. I was mistaken, however, to think that, because of this over-politicization, these problems do not deserve to be investigated.

In the summer of 2014, I worked at a reputable home-improvement store. Specifically, I was a seasonal overnight employee. I worked on a freight team stocking the shelves organizing the products and making sure the store was ready to go at opening. Our team worked from 9PM to 6AM: the graveyard shift. Most of the people I worked with were also seasonal. Seasonal employees are hired in the months between the end of spring and the middle of summer and are not promised full time positions until they are working full hours outside of the seasonal months. We were paid $9.25 per hour. And, while the same position would start a dollar higher outside of the season, seasonal employees, if retained, have to earn their raises 15-20 cents at a time, every 6 months, starting at that lower wage.

I, admittedly, was in no desperate need of money. For many of my coworkers, however, this was their living. They needed the employment and the wage, despite what they had to put up with to get it. Emotional and mental abuse was doled out by our respective taskmasters and the nature of the store allowed managers to punish employees they didn’t like by assigning them to specific departments. The Paint and Flooring departments were oftentimes the most physically-intensive places to work, while the Plumbing and Building Materials departments separated you from the rest of the group and the Garden department had the most visibility and the meanest supervisor.

While I was not treated well as an employee, I was treated with some semblance of respect. I was one of only two white seasonal workers; the rest were predominantly black. The manager of night operations (or the MOD — manager on duty), along with most of his supervisors, were white. Because of this, there was what one of my coworkers called “favoritism at its finest” at work in the store. Within a month of starting, the other white employee—Anthony—and I were offered full-time positions. This meant that before the season was over, we could receive benefits such as paid time off, vacation days, and healthcare plans. The black seasonal workers, on the other hand, had full-time positions held over them like carrots in order to exploit them for longer hours and more laborious tasks. Perhaps more audacious was the fact that the managers did not notify seasonal workers when the season was over, tricking many of them into continuing to work 40 hours a week with no benefits. Apart from seasonal labor, employers are generally obliged to provide fulltime workers with benefits, but because of the indefinite time period surrounding the concept of seasonal work, many employees continued working unaware that they were eligible for benefits. In the instances that they did request them, the paperwork was not completed expeditiously. Whether this was simply a logistical problem or the result of bad motives does not matter; it was clear that I could have received benefits whenever I wanted, which was not the case for my fellow employees.

The MOD often had night crew workers stay hours after their normal shifts by subliminal threat of termination. Some of us declined to do that, citing our specific responsibilities and schedules. I declined the majority of times and was never punished. Some of my coworkers, however, were scared of leaving and being fired. Some even reported that their hours were cut without notice after clocking out on time. A friend of mine noted that the MOD liked to firmly exhibit his control over certain workers’ job security. The manager on duty never did this to me, despite my resistance to his requests.

Another shocking discovery I had was when one of my African coworkers revealed to me that they were being paid 25 cents less an hour than the starting wage that I received, yet doing the same (if not more difficult) work. He consistently worked in the Paint department, which meant lifting over 1500lbs a night if not more. The store got away with paying him less though, most likely taking advantage of his lack of fluency in English.

As I have said, both of the white seasonal employees were offered fulltime jobs. I did not accept the offer because I knew I was not going to stay for long, but Anthony did. This made him the only seasonal employee with benefits. Once the season ended, however, he remained the only one with benefits. When Will—a black employee— questioned why he didn’t have sick time, Anthony mentioned his own acquisition of sick time. When the MOD was confronted about this, he desperately tried to prove to Will that Anthony was not being given sick time and that fulltime positions had not been offered yet. After the confrontation however, the MOD approached Anthony and threatened to cut his benefits and his hours (essentially his livelihood) because he had confessed to Will that he was receiving benefits. Anthony, of course, was in fact receiving benefits at the time. So why were only the white employees offered full-time benefits in the early months of their employment? And why after the season was over did the MOD continue to cover up the fact that the black employees were not receiving benefits?

The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) discusses issues of discrimination in the workplace. It notes that “the law forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment.” The particular store I worked for was in violation of a number of that list: from underpaying one member of the crew, to withholding benefits from Will and many others. Upon further investigation, I found that that company as a whole has paid out $100 million worth of discrimination settlements over the last 16 years.

I have heard arguments that these men have somehow deserved their treatment on the basis of their workmanship and diligence. When I started, Will was my first friend. He taught me the job and he treated me with respect that I may not have deserved. When he found out that I was studying Political Science, we spent entire nights talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He shared his food with me and he treated me like a coworker and an equal. Most importantly, however, he did his work and he did it well. There was no difference between him and me other than our skin color, yet that difference seemed to be grounds for entirely different treatment by our employer.

These anecdotes are merely my personal experience. They are stories that I saw play out firsthand that shocked me into a reality where issues like race and discrimination do exist. These are problems that some of us have the privilege to see on the news and the convenience to speculate about in private. I was one of many who convinced themselves that these problems have disappeared since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. But I saw for myself the misperception and mistreatment of a group of people, a group that I came to respect and enjoy. I do not intend to draw any broad conclusions about those people, or home-improvement stores, or MOD’s, but I wish to impart my experience because I believe it reflects the tragic prominence of race issues in our society and our collective ignorance of these problems.

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