A West Side man has filed a class action lawsuit against a company he claims engaged in a complicated scheme to avoid hiring African Americans at two of its bakeries, including one it once owned in the Galewood neighborhood.
Anthony Stewart claims that Aryzta, LLC, which owned Cloverhill Bakery, 2035 N. Narragansett Ave., before selling the factory to Hostess in February, deliberately avoided hiring black laborers at its Galewood and Cicero plants.
Activists from the West Side and Oak Park converged on Cloverhill last year to protest against what they claimed were Aryzta's many labor violations. The plant makes inexpensive packaged products like honey buns and glazed donuts.
According to the lawsuit, filed Aug. 6, Aryzta entered "into a conspiracy with two staffing agencies, Labor Network and Metro Staffing, in order to redirect laborers seeking work assignments from the Aryzta plants to the two staffing agencies and utilize the staffing agencies to segregate out African American laborers and to provide Aryzta with its preferred laborers, Hispanic laborers."
The lawsuit also alleges that Aryzta tried to defraud the federal government by illegally hiding data about the racial composition of its Galewood and Cicero workforces.
Companies with more than 100 workers are required to report that information to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. By utilizing the two staffing agencies to hire workers, Aryzta was able to avoid reporting information about its workforce to the EEOC.
According to the lawsuit, Aryzta directed Hispanic job applicants looking to work at its plants in Cicero and Galewood to Labor Network, where they would receive work assignments at either of those plants. Black job applicants, the lawsuit claims, were directed to Metro Staffing.
During a press conference held Aug. 7 outside of Cloverhill, Stewart said that when he applied to work at Aryzta in the fall of 2016, he was sent to Metro, but never heard back from the company despite his qualifications. Nonetheless, he kept trying.
"I was persistent because I knew they were hiring and I knew how you have to be, but they kept telling me that they'd keep my records on file but that they had nothing," he said.
Stewart referenced his vast working experience as a factory manager, warehouse manager, machine operator and licensed forklift driver before noting that he doesn't have any felonies on his record.
"I'm a very friendly person," Stewart said. "I'm a people person and I believe I would have been an asset to this company."
The lawsuit adds that Stewart "noticed that Hispanic laborers were allowed to fill out an application and immediately be assigned to work even though he and other African American laborers had been in the office longer that day."
Stewart's attorney, Christopher Williams, with Workers' Law Office, said Stewart's experience reflected a pattern and practice of systemic race-based discrimination on the part of Aryzta from 2014 until the company sold the plant to Hostess.
At the press conference, Williams said that Stewart was so far the only plaintiff in the lawsuit, but he anticipates others will join. Williams said any African American who sought work at Aryzta "either directly or through one of the staffing agencies and wasn't provided with work" is eligible to sign onto the lawsuit.
This isn't the first lawsuit filed against Aryzta or the first time it has attracted attention for the demographic breakdown of its workforce. Williams said claims in Stewart's lawsuit are based, in part, on a breach of contract lawsuit filed against the company by Klin Koncepts Consulting Services.
According to the Klin lawsuit, Aryzta failed to pay the consulting company because of the latter's failure to meet efficiency levels. Klin said that those efficiency levels weren't met due to actions taken by Aryzta that were outside of Klin's control, such as Aryzta's strong preference for hiring non-African American laborers and directing its two staffing agencies not to accept black workers at its Galewood and Cicero plants.
Late last year, Aryzta officials said that Cloverhill lost 800 workers after federal immigration authorities audited the bakery and came down hard on immigrant workers who did not have sufficient documentation.
At the time, Bloomberg reported that the bakery's immigration issues "led to a 7 percent decline in Aryzta's sales from North America in the three months through October."
After that federal enforcement action, activists claimed, Aryzta shed its Hispanic workers and hired many African American workers with little training to replace them. During their protest outside Cloverhill last October, activists from Oak Park and Chicago's West Side protested what they claimed were the company's low pay and its racist and unsafe work environment, among other factors.
During the Aug. 7 press conference, Williams said Stewart's class action lawsuit against Aryzta could take years but that it has merit.
A similar lawsuit filed against Ferrara Candy Company on behalf of African American workers several years ago, he said, resulted in the company settling for an undisclosed amount of money. The company also implemented a series of changes at its Forest Park plant that led to a significant increase in the number of black workers employed at the plant.
On Aug. 7, the activists also demanded aired a series of grievances about working environments at Cloverhill since Hostess purchased the plant earlier this year.
"Nearly three months later, we continue to suffer discrimination and unfairness," according to a petition circulated by various activist groups, including Black Workers Matter. "Hostess has yet to stop or remove bad supervisors that caused problems under Aryzta."
The activists demanded "consistency in enforcing policies, including tardiness and break time rules," the removal of "discrimination or favoritism in job assignments, rotations and scheduling," respect "for seniority in job-bidding and promotion" and that Hostess conduct anti-racism training run by the EEOC for all of the plant's managers and supervisors.
In a statement delivered to activists on Aug. 7 by Matt Hall, the vice president of human resources for Hostess, the company noted that it has been working with employees, union members and residents since acquiring the plant.
"While we cannot speak to the practices and principles of our previous owners, our six month track record clearly demonstrates our commitment," the statement reads.
According to company officials, Hostess has poured around $30 million in planned capital investments, such as equipment upgrades, at the plant; converted Aryzta employees who were once temporary workers with no benefits to "permanent active full-time employees;" and provided "welcome bonuses" for all full-time active employees, among other improvements the company touted.
But at the press conference, Dan Giloth, a project director with the Coalition Against Segregation of Employees (CASE), said that Hostess had not implemented some of the activist's major demands, such as the anti-discriminatory training.
"We simply want to know if the company will [conduct the EEOC training]," Giloth told Hall. "We think it's a reasonable ask. It's been done in other places and we think it will benefit the company, the managers and the workers. We're looking for a simple yes or no."
Hall said that Hostess has "engaged with a third party" and "spoken with the EEOC," but when pressed by Giloth to answer whether or not the EEOC training had actually been scheduled, Hall said it had not before saying that the plant could not currently accommodate the training due to a production backlog.
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