Teen Clothing Brand Slapped With $7.5 Million Fine After Racism Allegations

Wet SeatWet Seal models, not the employees in the lawsuitTeen clothing brand Wet Seal has reached a $7.5 million settlement over allegations that it 

horrendously discriminated against employees of colour, because they didn’t have the “white,” “blue eye,” “thin and blond” look the brand wanted, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Three former managers filed the lawsuit last year, accusing the nationwide retail chain of actively firing and denying raises and promotions to black workers. One plaintiff, former manager Kai Hawkins, said that her boss threatened to fire her unless she hired more white employees. Another, Nicole Codgell, claimed that she was fired the day after the company’s senior vice president for store operations toured several outlets and sent an email to lower managers, “African American dominate — huge issue.” 

The lawsuit also accused senior vice president Barbara Bachman of commanding managers to “lighten up” the staff in stores serving mainly white customers, and telling one regional manager that she must have “lost her mind” to put a black person in charge of a certain store.Wet Seal had denied the allegations. The company, calling the settlement a “no-fault resolution of the case,” agreed to pay at least $5.58 million in damages to current and former African American managers, according to the NAACP Legal defence and Education Fund, which was co-counsel in the suit. As part of the settlement, Wet Seal, which has over 7,000 employees, must also track applications to ensure diversity in hiring, expand its human resources department, post management openings, and regularly report on the hiring, promotions and firings of minority employees.

“Being targeted for termination from a job I loved because of my race was a nightmare,” Cogdell said in a statement. “… Wet Seal has now committed to strong, fair policies because we took a stand. I hope these changes will create opportunities for all deserving employees, regardless of their race.”

This isn’t an isolated case in the retail industry, where the pursuit of a specific “brand image” can end up leaving many out. “There’s sort of an assumption about what the employees who interact with the customers have to look like,” ReNika Moore, director of the NAACP Legal defence and Education Fund’s economic justice group, told AOL Jobs. “And there’s a bias and prejudice that’s filtering into these workspaces, and it’s really acting as a barrier for workers of colour to advance.”

The Wet Seal case was just a particularly extreme example, she said. “You rarely get situations where it’s so explicitly recorded, in email, especially from someone at such a high level in the company.”

In 2004, Abercrombie & Fitch paid $40 million to minority and female employees and job applicants to settle a massive class-action federal discrimination suit. The settlement also demanded that Abercrombie increase the number of non-whites in its ads.

But it wasn’t just African Americans who didn’t fit into Abercrombie’s idea of itself; an employee, who claimed that she was forced to work in the stockroom, away from customers, because of her prosthetic arm, filed suit in 2009; and two women said that they were fired or refused a job for wearing a head scarf.

Just this week, Abercrombie has come under fire for refusing to stock XL sizes, and media outlets resurfaced a 2006 quote from CEO Mike Jeffries. “In every school there are cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he told Salon. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

But for many retail chains, there’s a built-in bias when it comes to the question of who belongs. A 2012 survey of New York retailers by the worker advocacy group, Retail Action Project, and CUNY’s Murphy Institute for Worker Education and labour Studies found that minority workers were more likely to have their hours reduced without their consent, and significantly less likely to get a promotion.

White employees also earned an average of $11.30 an hour, compared to $10.49 for black workers, and $9.45 for Latinos, according to the report. All of them earn more than the average Wet Seal sales associate, however. According to employment review site Glassdoor.com, he or she takes home just $7.90 an hour.

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