Discrimination against employees on the basis of race or gender is illegal under both California and federal law. And yet, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports those are two of the top three most common types of employment discrimination claims filed. Racial discrimination on-the-job accounts for about 33 percent of all employment lawsuits, while gender discrimination accounts for 32 percent of claims.
As our Los Angeles employment attorneys can explain, where workplace discrimination exists, it’s fairly common for there to be more than one protected status on which it’s based. When different types of unfair treatment at work overlap each other, it’s referred to as intersectional discrimination. It’s common because discrimination is rarely about a single person, but rather an entire workplace culture that clings to the familiar and eschews any type of “otherness” – actual or perceived.
A recent example of intersectional discrimination at work was laid out in a federal employment lawsuit against a Los Angeles food company.
Employees Allege Unfair Treatment, Retaliation
Former workers alleged being unfairly treated and targets of racial and gender discrimination. The legal proceedings had been notably rancorous and high-profile, but the case was ultimately settled quietly, with both sides declining to comment on the resolution.
While the defendant employer is based in Los Angeles, the employment lawsuit was filed in a New York federal court. The claims were filed by two former employees, both women of color, both immigrants – one a native of India and the other a South African native who grew up in Japan. In court records and media interviews, the workers said they were paid less than white employees, suffered verbal abuse from co-workers and supervisors, and were retaliated against when they complained. Casual racism and sexism were widely tolerated, they said, and it led to broad disparities not only in pay, but in job assignments, opportunities for advancement, and benefits.
Among the facts as laid out by the complainant employees:
- One was paid a starting salary of $22,000 less than a younger white counterpart with comparable experience.
- Both said they were more frequently tasked with menial labor jobs (taking out the trash, washing dishes, etc.) compared to white counterparts.
- Unlike their white and male coworkers, they were urged not to take lunch breaks and were routinely encouraged to work evenings and weekends with no overtime pay. (The company sent them both checks for $30,000+ in unpaid overtime after a media organization called seeking comment about the allegations.)
- A supervisor discouraged one of the complainants from having children, saying her career should be her top priority.
- A supervisor mocked one complainant’s accent, grammar, and word pronunciation.
- At the start of the pandemic, a supervisor commented loudly about his concern for catching the virus because of “all the crazy rich Asians” that lived in/were visiting his building.
- Unlike the relief white employees got when they raised concerns about heavy workloads, complainants said they were simply told they needed to be team players.
- A supervisor asked the Black employee “Why do Black people get so offended over watermelon?”
- Both say they were given more job responsibilities without the titles and higher pay that should have gone with those. After applying for an art director position, plaintiff was told it was no longer available due to the pandemic. Soon after, the job listing was advertised on LinkedIn, indicating the ideal candidate had 2 years of experience. When plaintiff brought it to the company’s attention and pointed out that she did have adequate experience, the ad was changed to reflect the desire to hire someone with 3-5 years of experience. Plaintiff was given the job after complaining about a $10,000 pay gap between her and white co-workers.
The food company owners denied in media interviews that they fostered a discriminatory or hostile work environment. They allege the two workers were disrespectful and insubordinate and often failed to meet performance standards. The company filed counterclaims, alleging the two former employees illegally recorded phone calls with executives in California, which prohibits such recordings unless all parties consent.
Both the claims and counterclaims were ultimately settled under confidential terms following mediation and subsequently dismissed. The company has since closed the New York office where both of these employees had worked, though the Los Angeles office remains open.
Intersectional Employment Discrimination
Intersectional discrimination in employment occurs when a worker is treated differently than co-workers because of bias that combines two or more legally protected characteristics.
The case against the food media company is one example of race and gender bias intersectionalism. Other types of workplace discrimination that often intersect are age and gender (women over 40 are common targets), national origin and color (a Black man from Kenya may be targeted for both skin color and where he was born), or gender and religion (Muslim women wearing the hijab may face workplace discrimination for both).
Such “double whammies” are far from new. In analyzing the 1976 federal case of DeGraffenreid v General Motors, an American civil rights advocate outlined the fact that Black women employees were adversely impacted by the company’s discriminatory policy when it came to them: Last hired, first fired. Essentially, Black women were less likely to get hired in the first place, and then were more vulnerable to being fired or laid off. In that case, the court sided with the company, pointing to White women who were hired into administrative positions and Black men who were employed on the factory floor. These facts, the court held, meant that the company’s hiring and employment practices weren’t actually racist. But as our Los Angeles employment attorneys can explain, that ruling set something of a precedent that indicated the law could only address a single system of marginalization at any one time. But that is far from the reality of the world we live in when it comes to prejudice and discrimination.
Courts have since evolved to be more accepting of intersectional discrimination in the workplace, but we still have a ways to go. Working with an experienced Southern California employment lawyer is key.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Newport Beach, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.
Feedfeed settles discrimination lawsuit by ex-employees, Dec. 1, 2022, By Tim Carman, The Washington Post