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Image: Amazon

Amazon is being sued for allegedly discriminating against Black and female employees, according to a newly-filed lawsuit. In the complaint that she filed in a federal court in Washington, D.C. on Monday against Amazon.com, Inc., Amazon Web Services, Inc., Andres Maz, Steven Block, and Shannon Kellogg, Charlotte Newman alleges that the $1 trillion-plus retail titan and its founder/CEO Jeff Bezos hold “themselves out as among the foremost, most innovative companies and business leaders in the U.S. and the world,” making “‘customer obsession’ their top leadership principle.” 

Yet, despite its overarching focus on its customers, Ms. Newman claims that Amazon and Mr. Bezos are not similarly concerned about the treatment of Amazon employees. “Driven by profits and greed, Amazon and Mr. Bezos are not ’employee-obsessed’ in the same way,'” per Newman, who claims that “their practices when it comes to hiring and promoting Black people and other underrepresented minorities to high-level positions (and paying them commensurately) perpetuate decades-old patterns of discrimination.”

Setting the stage in her 63-page complaint (which is not a proposed class action), Newman asserts that “like so many other Black and female employees at Amazon, [she] was confronted with a systemic pattern of insurmountable discrimination based upon the color of her skin and her gender.” Specifically, Newman claims in the newly-filed suit that she was hired in 2017 as “a Public Policy Manager (a Level 6 position at Amazon), despite the fact that she had applied and was qualified for a higher-level position called Senior Manager (Level 7).” Within months of starting at Amazon, Newman – who is a Harvard Business School graduate with “years of experience as a top advisor to U.S. Senator Cory Booker and multiple members of the House of Representatives on financial regulation and legislation” – alleges that she “was assigned and doing the work of a Senior Manager-level employee while still being paid at and having the title of the Manager level.” 

“To make matters worse, and in defiance of the anti-discrimination laws,” Newman contends that even though she was doing senior management-level work, she was paid “significantly less than her white coworkers, particularly in valuable Amazon stock,” and “unlike her colleagues,” she was forced to “wait more than two and a half years for a promotion to the level at which she should have been hired in the first place.” And even while doing her job “extremely well,” she says that she has also “had to contend with entrenched attitudes on the part of managers who are skeptical of and discount the contributions of Black and female employees at Amazon.” 

“A Consistent Practice”

Newman claims that she “certainly is not alone among Amazon’s corporate workforce in facing discriminatory treatment,” as “many of [her] colleagues [have] observed a consistent practice of paying Black employees less than similarly situated white employees, and a near-total lack of Black representation in and very few women in the upper echelons of the group’s leadership.” More than that, Newman alleges that “based upon numerous conversations with other Amazon employees who are persons of color and/or women, the ‘de-leveling’ of Black employees when they are hired (i.e., dropping them a level below the job they applied and were qualified for or will be performing) is common, as is a longer wait for promotions for Black employees and women (particularly to high-level positions at Director (L8) and above).”

And still yet, Newman asserts that she was subjected to further mistreatment, namely “vile and aggressive sexual assault and harassment committed against her by a senior male employee (which had distinct racial aspects as well), as well as … discriminatory attitudes by her managers and their impact on her.” One male supervisor, Steven Block, who is named as a defendant, used “racial tropes” by calling her “aggressive,” “too direct” and “just scary,” Newman asserts, accusing another “senior male co-worker,” Andres Maz, who is also a named defendant, of sexually harassed her on multiple occasions before eventually being fired. 

The Impact of Race and Gender

Despite reporting “her concerns about the impact of her race and gender on her employment to the company on multiple occasions,” including by way of written complaints about the racial and sexual discrimination, and harassment that she experienced, Newman claims that “Amazon has failed to seriously grapple with these issues among its management,” asserting that “racial and sexual discrimination exists in Amazon’s corporate corridors, not just its warehouses.”

“Unsurprisingly” given the allegations at hand, Newman says that “until August 2020, the elite management team curated by Mr. Bezos (the vaunted ‘S-Team’) did not … have a single Black executive among its approximately two dozen members (as recently as 2017, only one woman was among its 18 members at the time), and Amazon’s Board of Directors includes only one Black person (and has had only one other Black person on it in its 25-year history).” These “trends in Amazon’s leadership and workforce demographics” demonstrate that “Black people and other underrepresented persons of color are being kept out of the Company’s upper ranks,” Newman asserts. 

“Naturally,” Newman asserts that “a lack of diversity in an organization’s highest ranks and upper management has a direct impact on diversity in promotions, as the senior executives and managers are the ones who make recommendations for promotions and compensation decisions,” and the “relative lack of Black employees [in Amazon’s] higher levels demonstrates a sustained failure to engage, as Amazon has pledged to do, in ‘standing in solidarity’ with its Black employees.”

Ultimately, Newman claims that Amazon discriminated against her “on the basis of her race (Black/African-American) and/or color (Black/Brown) … by denying her the same terms and conditions of employment available to non-Black/African-American, and non-Black or Brown employees, including, but not limited to, subjecting her to disparate working conditions, denying her terms and conditions of employment equal to that of her coworkers who do not belong to the same protected categories, as well as, but not limited to, by paying her less than her comparable and/or similarly situated colleagues in sufficiently similar and/or equivalent positions, failing to hire and/or promote her to an appropriate job level, and denying her the opportunity to work in an employment setting free of unlawful discrimination.” 

Amazon also discriminated against her on the basis of her gender, Newman claims, by “paying [her] a lesser rate of pay, including but not limited to salary and securities awards or grants, than that paid to male employees performing the same or substantially similar job duties which require equal skill, effort and responsibility, and under the same working conditions.”

At the same time, she alleges that Amazon is on the hook for “engaging in racial and sexual harassment and/or creating, fostering, condoning, accepting, ratifying, and/or otherwise failing to prevent or to remedy a hostile work environment,” causing her to “suffer, and continues to suffer, monetary and/or other economic harm, including, but not limited to, loss of past and future income, for which [Newman says that] is entitled an award of monetary damages and other relief.”

While “Amazon may be the largest on-line retailer and Mr. Bezos one of the richest men in the world, they are not above the law,” Newman argues, asserting claims of Discrimination and Harassment in Violation of Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act, Violations of the Equal Pay Act, and Discrimination in Violation of the DC Human Rights Act against the various defendants, and Assault and Battery/Sexual Abuse against Mr. Maz individually.

A spokesman for Amazon said, “We do not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind and thoroughly investigate all claims and take appropriate action. We are currently investigating the new allegations included in this lawsuit.”

*The case is Newman v.  Amazon.com, Inc., et al., 1:21-cv-00531 (D.D.C.).