On April 18, 2017, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) filed a putative class action against the SLS Hotel South Beach in Miami, Florida (“Hotel”), alleging that the Hotel violated Title VII by firing black Haitian dishwashers who worked in the kitchen and serviced several restaurants in the Hotel – including the Bazaar by Jose Andres, Katsuya and Hyde Beach – and replacing them with white and Hispanic workers, who were supplied by a staffing agency, National Service Group (“NSG”).
This case highlights one of the EEOC’s asserted priorities in its strategic plan for the next six years, to address discrimination in “complex employment relationships” focusing on “temporary workers, staffing agencies, independent contractor relationships, and the on-demand economy.” Here, although a staffing agency made the decision regarding who to hire to replace the terminated employees, the EEOC has stated that an employer may not shield itself from liability for discrimination simply by authorizing an agent to make its hiring or firing decisions, if those decisions are discriminatory.
The Complaint against the Hotel was filed by the EEOC after fifteen former employees lodged charges of discrimination with the EEOC based on their race, color and national origin, and the EEOC issued Letters of Determination after finding reasonable cause to believe that discrimination occurred. The Complaint asserts that black Haitian employees were treated worse than their Hispanic counterparts at the Hotel. Among the allegations in the Complaint are that black Haitian employees were reprimanded for speaking Creole while Hispanic employees were not reprimanded for speaking Spanish; that black Haitian employees were referred to as “slaves” by other employees, including managers; and Haitian employees were forced to carry heavy items up the stairs, while Hispanic employees were not asked to perform those same tasks. Further, the Complaint alleges that the Hotel decided to outsource staffing to NSG, but it did not encourage or notify its black Haitian employees to apply for positions with the agency. Rather, according to the Complaint, black Haitian employees were provided a settlement agreement in English, though many cannot read the language, and were told they would only receive their final paycheck upon signing the agreement. A press release from the EEOC further contends that the black Haitian workers were replaced “with light-skinned Hispanics.” For its part, the Hotel has spoken out against the allegations, contending that it conducted an investigation as soon as it received notice of the charges and found no evidence of wrongdoing. Chief Legal Officer for the Hotel, James L. Greeley, stated that the Hotel has been cooperating with the EEOC, engaging in good faith attempts to resolve this matter, and will continue to fully defend the Hotel against false claims.