It has not been a great week for Orthodox Jews. First Matisyahu cut off his beard sending a shockwave through the Jewish community at large. Now B&H, the mega camera store run by ultra-Orthodox Jews just off the Lincoln Tunnel, is getting sued for discrimination…again. Former employees Luis Santana and Carlos Marchand have filed a lawsuit against the company claiming to have been looked over for promotions because they are Hispanic. Big surprise.
For a brief stint out of college, I worked at B&H. As a pro video salesman, I was one of the many elves who helped thousands of people live out their filmmaking dreams by selling them expensive gear. If you’ve never been to B&H’s store, it’s worth a visit if only to behold the sheer madness of it. While they’ve updated the store’s design since I left, the same basic shopping system remains. Instead of wandering through aisles to find a product that you like, you wait in line to speak with a salesman who will help you get what you need. After crunching a few keys on his keyboard, he tells the basement to send up your order, and whatever lens or camera or accessory you wanted appears either by an elevator or a conveyor belt. They scan your purchase, give you a sales ticket and send your wares back into the Rube Goldberg bowels of the store, where it will eventually lead back to the check out register. You pay, then you wait in line again to actually get your purchase. It feels more like an airport than an electronics store, with bloated signs pointing the way to whatever you need (Photography →, Lighting ↖, Audio ↘, etc.). It’s capitalist efficiency run amok, and it’s all part of what makes it one of the greatest camera stores in the world.
But there is something else one notices immediately when walking into the store. The green vested sales staff is largely either Orthodox, Jewish or male, often all three. And if you look for the blue vests, which signals a floor manager, you’d be hard-pressed to find one without peyos. This is, ultimately, what has gotten B&H into hot water in the past and is why it is getting sued yet again. In 2007 the store settled for $4.3 million with hispanic workers at its Brooklyn Navy Yard warehouse after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found the store was paying hispanic workers less than Jewish ones. In 2009, four women sued the store for gender discrimination. From the New York Times:
In the lawsuit against B&H, filed in State Supreme Court in the Bronx, one current and three former female employees claim that they were denied sales positions because they are women. According to the lawsuit, this was a common practice at B&H.
Nakisha Cushnie, the lead plaintiff in the case, was “advised that these positions were not open to her due to ‘religious reasons,’ ” the lawsuit says.
And now two former hispanic employees are alleging that they were denied promotions because of their race. It comes as no surprise to me since I got to see how things worked on the inside. I worked with many great people at B&H, some of whom I still keep in touch with. The ultra-Orthodox employees were never anything but kind to me, and I always found them to be good company on the floor. But I was also acutely aware that a lot of my good fortune within B&H had to do with the fact that I was born a man and a Jew.
I want to be clear that I have no smoking gun. I never witnessed a woman being denied a job or an hispanic worker opening a smaller paycheck than his Satmar colleague. My time there provided more anecdotal evidence of the cultural divide between peoples. For the Orthodox Satmar Jews that divide is by design, but the rest of us live in the real world and came to work in theirs at B&H, right down to the veritable mechitza, the partition that separates mens’ and womens’ seating in some Orthodox synagogues, that existed within the company. Many women worked there when I did, but they were usually out of sight. I don’t recall any women working on the floor in sales positions.
Mostly, B&H, like many retail operations, was a demoralizing place to work. It’s a megalith that does billions of dollars with of business a year that runs like a well-oiled machine, literally. As baskets of merchandise zip along the ceiling of the store it’s easy to feel like you’re just another cog in the business, like some dutiful worker in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Press the buttons, make the sale, fatten the company’s bottom line.
That kind of environment breeds resentment from the start. Add into that mix a mostly homogenous staff with well-known but hushed barriers to success, and you are bound to make a lot of people angry. B&H shouldn’t view these lawsuits as a thorn in their paw or a nuisance that will lighten their coffers. Instead they should grab the opportunity to change their ways and harness the pool of motivated people who want to work there. There are a lot of women, Hispanics and non-Jews itching to sell cameras. Why not put them to good use instead of holding them back?
These lawsuits will keep on coming until, as an entity, B&H cleans up its act. As a Jew, I am proud to see that our people have built one of the most formidable retail outlets on the planet. Also as a Jew it pains me to see that the practice of treating employees differently along the lines of race, gender and religion still continues. We fought to break down those barriers elsewhere, it’s time to clean up our own house. B&H, make this right.