Eastman Kodak Co. thought it was “doing the right thing” in 1999 by awarding raises to more than 2,000 African-American and female workers who, according to a company study, had been inexplicably underpaid for years.
But Rochester’s largest employer was actually making matters worse, the plaintiffs in a sweeping racial discrimination lawsuit claimed on Sunday.
The company set up mechanisms for handing out raises that were insincere and motivated more by a desire to limit liability than by fairness, attorneys for the workers said in their first public comments about the case.
Plaintiffs charged that the procedures exposed a workplace that systematically treats black people differently from white people in matters such as pay, promotions and job assignments. The lawyers and plaintiffs gave details of their suit to about 250 supporters during a news conference at New Bethel CME Church in Rochester.
That system is at the heart of the discrimination lawsuit filed late Friday in U.S. District Court in Rochester. Ten current and former workers and the group Employees Committed for Justice are accusing the company of a “pattern and practice” of workplace bias. They are seeking class-action status in hopes of representing all past, present and future black employees at the company. The case asks for unspecified damages and for a judge to order Kodak to stop discriminating.
Kodak, which has established workplace diversity as an urgent business priority and has been recognized nationally for its efforts, has said it does not comment on pending litigation. But the company says it does not tolerate discrimination in the workplace. It also says that it has established a number of programs, some praised by outside observers, to resolve disputes and promote fairness.
“We are absolutely committed to fairness, to dignity and respect in our workplace,” Chief Diversity Officer Essie Calhoun said in an interview Sunday following the press conference.
“We have practices and policies in place and we vigorously enforce those. We don’t tolerate discriminatory behavior. We take action when we find it, even to the point of termination.”
The suit, the workers said Sunday, culminates years of frustration that intensified following the 1999 pay settlement, in which the 2,000 workers shared about $13 million. “We’re not going to take it anymore. We’re going to stand and fight, even if it takes us 100 years. We’re not giving up,” ex-Kodak worker Olin Singletary, 58, one of the plaintiffs, told supporters.
According to the suit, the 1999 settlement included a dispute resolution process centered on peer review. Panels of workers were established to hear complaints. The panels were charged with recommending whether an employee should receive extra pay—and if so, how much—as well as promotions and changes in work conditions.
But Singletary said that people who participated on the panels soon learned that the company wasn’t following their recommendations. The company’s settlement offers were often dramatically less than initially suggested and required the employee to waive his or her right to file a lawsuit.
Upon learning of the discrepancies, employees who served on the dispute panels started meeting and comparing notes. They formed a group, known as Employees Committed for Justice, that eventually wrote an unsolicited letter to Washington, D.C., lawyer Clayborne E. Chavers, a former counsel in the civil division of the U.S. Justice Department. “It told a sad story about how black people at Kodak are treated,” Chavers recalled Sunday. The group, he said, “was complaining about wrongs that should have been resolved well before 2002.”
Chavers said he subsequently recruited a team of lawyers, from three different cities, to represent the employee group. It includes William T. Coleman III, former general counsel for the U.S. Army, whose father was an attorney on the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case.
The lawyers, including the Rochester firm of Woods, Oviatt and Gilman, have been talking with Kodak about the case, but discussions broke down Friday, Chavers said. The lawsuit includes charges beyond pay. It says Kodak also discriminates on promotions, wage grade and work assignment. It also contends that workers were exposed to racial slurs, graffiti and other hostility.
Plaintiff Maria Scott, 39, spoke emotionally about her experiences. She joined Kodak in 1991 as an assembler of single-use cameras but says she was harassed, denied pay raises despite good evaluations and denied promotions.
The plaintiffs are challenging a company that has made substantial progress in becoming more diverse and has invested heavily in programs to promote workplace fairness.
Racial minorities made up 12 percent of Kodak’s U.S. work force in 1991. By last year, that number had jumped to just over 20 percent. The progress in hiring is manifesting itself at the top. Four of the 11 members of Kodak’s board of directors are minorities; 13 percent of its officials and managers are minorities, a three-fold increase since 1991. The company’s No. 2 executive is Antonio Perez, president and chief operating officer.
Kodak also recently exposed itself to outside scrutiny. The company formed a diversity advisory panel of experts—in law and academia, chaired by former assistant attorney general Eric Holder—which studied the company’s employment practices and found Kodak to be a leader in diversity programs. It has also been named one of the top 50 companies for minorities the last three years by Fortune magazine. Kodak, however, says it doesn’t pretend to be perfect on matters of workplace fairness. Diversity, the company says, is a “journey” that requires continuous attention.