Photo retailer B&H faces unwanted exposure over worker safety

by @Gottesdiener October 12, 2015 2:30AM ET

Employees report injuries, abuse, long hours at the company's New York City warehouses

Low-wage Workers
B&H Photo Video is the largest non-chain photo store in the United States. Employees in its warehouses are protesting what they say are unsafe working conditions.
Jonah Markowitz for Al Jazeera America

NEW YORK — At night, when Oscar Orellana arrives home after his 13-hour shifts in the warehouse of B&H Photo Video, a national electronics retailer, he is often in such pain, he can barely lift his 2-year-old daughter.

“He can’t bend at all,” said one of his older daughters, Odalys. “My sisters want to play hide and seek, or tag, but he can’t because his back is really injured.”

In 2014, Orellana fell from the top of an eight-foot-high pallet in the warehouse and severely injured his upper spine. He says he never received any training on how to operate the forklift he was instructed to use to unload the inventory. He was never even provided a hard hat, he says.

That’s why on Sunday, Orellana joined nearly 200 of his co-workers in publicly denouncing B&H Photo Video, the largest non-chain photo store in the United States, with more than a quarter of a billion dollars in annual revenue and a lengthy history of alleged discrimination and workplace safety complaints.

“We are here today to demand our rights,” declared B&H worker Raul Pedraza, minutes before he, Orellana and dozens of their co-workers flooded into the megastore in Manhattan to deliver a letter listing their demands, which include safer working conditions, fewer hours and a recognition of their petition to join the United Steelworkers union.

Before publication of this story, B&H Photo Video declined multiple requests for comment. On Tuesday night, Hershel Jacobowitz, senior executive vice president, released a statement saying that the company treats employees well. "We have committed, devoted, hard-working employees who enjoy above-industry salaries, generous benefit packages, 17 paid days off annually, and 3-weeks vacation time," he wrote, adding that B&H provides a "safe, friendly environment."

Oscar Orellana, 30. In January 2014, Orellana fell from a pallet loaded with merchandise, severely injuring his spine. He quickly returned to work, he said, and despite excruciating pain, was forced to continue carrying heavy boxes. “I can’t stand the pain anymore” he said. “I have even tried to take my life. I have carried this weight for two years, and I just can’t handle it.”
Jonah Markowitz

Even amid fast food workers’ fight for $15 an hour and other low-wage worker campaigns, the action against B&H is unusual for the gravity of the health and safety abuses alleged by its employees, say organizers and lawyers working with the campaign.

In the main B&H warehouse located in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, the walls and ceilings are insulated with fiberglass that fills the air and flecks off onto the worker’s skin, causing rashes, respiration problems and daily nosebleeds, employees say. Inside a second warehouse, on Evergreen Avenue in Brooklyn, employees say they have worked amid asbestos-insulated tubing. “They would tell us to clean the tubes,” recalled maintenance worker Miguel Angel Muñoz Meneses, “but nobody wanted to touch them.”

The men, many of whom are undocumented, testify of suffering from kidney stones, dizziness and fainting after being denied access to water or bathroom breaks. They say there is often a lack of basic safety equipment. “If we ask for gloves, they answer that they do not have gloves, because gloves are too expensive,” said Isaias Rojas, a B&H employee.

One man reported he was badly cut while lifting boxes, and the managers refused to call an ambulance, instead advising him to simply wait until the bleeding stopped. Another said a manager threw hot water on him and slapped his face. Others report those who complain are fired or threatened with deportation.

“They treat us as if we were animals,” Florencio Salgado said. “We are involved in this because we are tired of being abused.”

For many of the men, the most egregious offense occurred on Sept. 5, 2014, when two tractor trailers parked adjacent to the Navy Yard warehouse burst into flames, sending clouds of black smoke into the shipping and receiving section as the workers were inside.

Silverio Cano Alberto, who has worked for B&H for seven years, said he was on the second floor as the flames licked the outside of the warehouse.

“There was smoke and yelling and no one, including the manager, paid any attention,” he said. “Finally, they told us we could leave, but we each had to pass through the metal detectors, which took about a half hour. When I got outside, the parking lot was filled with firemen and police. Imagine — if the fire had spread, we would never have all made it out.”

Stephanie Luce, a professor of labor studies at the Murphy Institute at the City University of New York, said that, if verified, these allegations would constitute violations of the “highest level of basic rights.”

Florencio Salgado, 37. Salgado has been employed in the B&H warehouse for 10 years, working long hours to support his parents in Mexico. “They are exploiting us," he said. "They are 'juicing us' like a fruit. Once they take all the juice from us then we will be thrown away because we are going to be good for nothing.”
Jonah Markowitz

“These are very serious,” Luce said. “That's one of the main things that happening in places like Bangladesh, where there have been fires and buildings have collapsed, and workers can't escape.”

B&H declined to comment on any of the specific allegations, including the handling of the 2014 fire.

It was around the time of the fire that B&H employee Raul Pedraza and some of his fellow workers decided to begin organizing clandestinely, along with the help of the Laundry Workers Center, which provides training for immigrant workers.

Pedraza first learned of the center through his brother, who was employed at a cleaners on the Upper East Side of Manhattan a few storefronts from a Hot and Crusty deli where the center organized its first campaign. It was 2012, and about a dozen Latino workers, most of them undocumented, were in a tit-for-tat standoff with the investors who operated the deli chain. The men and women protested for the right to unionize, and an end to wage theft and racial discrimination. The ensuing drama included arrests, a takeover of the store and never-ending picket lines. At one point, the investors tried to simply shutter the deli and fired everyone. In response, the workers set up a weeks-long bake sale on the sidewalk in protest. Finally, the investors sold off the chain, and the new owners agreed to grant Hot and Crusty its union.

“First my brother told his boss, ‘Careful, or we’ll bring them over here,’” Pedraza recalls. “And then he called me and said, ‘These people can help you.’”

By the time Pedraza contacted the Laundry Workers Center, Mahoma Lopez, a deli worker who led the Hot and Crusty campaign, had become the association’s co-executive director. He and an organizer from the United Steelworkers Union began meeting with Pedraza and a growing number of other workers.

Meanwhile, Orellana was becoming increasingly desperate. He’d returned to work after a two-day stay in the hospital following the accident, he says, only to learn B&H would not assume responsibility for the injury. Nor would his supervisors heed his doctor’s orders and transfer him to a position that required less heavy lifting, according to Orellana.

Raul Pedraza, a B&H warehouse worker who is one of the leaders of the campaign. "We decided to change the conditions in our workplace," he said. "We demand respect and to be treated as human beings."
Jonah Markowitz

The pain grew worse as the months stretched on. But Orellana, an immigrant from Honduras with little formal education, had few options. “Even if I feel I am dying from the pain, I have to work,” he said.

His depression worsened as he felt alienated from his family, he says. He became overwhelmed with suicidal thoughts.

Many of Orellana’s co-workers also report experiencing stress, anxiety, depression and panic attacks during the 12- to 17-hour shifts in the windowless rooms.

Jorge Lora, who was a teacher in the Dominican Republic before moving to the United States, decided to become one of the early leaders of the campaign because he was tired of what he describes as verbal abuse. “They make me feel as if I was nobody,” he said. “It makes me feel beaten down, like I’m a loser. … I don’t mind hard work, but what I don’t like is the humiliation.”

B&H Photo Video has a record of alleged workplace discrimination violations. In 2007, B&H settled  $4.3 million discrimination lawsuit filed by Latino workers over unequal pay and lack of health benefits. The suit forced B&H to submit to monitoring by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Yet, despite the monitoring, B&H was soon slapped by a new round of lawsuits. In 2009, a group of female workers sued the company, arguing they were paid less than male employees and were not promoted because of their gender. B&H promptly fired the lead plaintiff. (The suit was later dismissed.) In 2011, in the third suit in five years, B&H was hit by another multimillion dollar racial discrimination lawsuit, filed by two Latino workers, who claimed the company refused to promote them and that B&H was an “abusive work environment.”

Jorge Lora, 36. Lora, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic lives with his wife and their two children in the Bronx. Each morning he leaves for work while his family sleeps and returns only to find them all in bed again. “It’s time for us to ask for some time that we could spend with our families because the most important thing is the family," he said. “[Money] means mean nothing if we lose our families.”
Jonah Markowitz

“Unfortunately, it is common that workplaces can be under investigation and then still be committing serious violations,” said Luce, the CUNY professor. “It's often that violators are violators in multiple arenas: They will be violating wage laws, discrimination laws and health and safety laws. For these companies, it's basically their business model: They are succeeding by cutting corners and taking risks.”

On Sunday, Oscar Orellana arrived at the campaign launch with his entire family. Like many of his co-workers, he’d been anticipating the day. “I feel there will be a change, that somebody will understand me,” he said.

He was one of 199 out of the approximately 240 B&H warehouse workers who had already signed union authorization cards, according to the Laundry Workers Center. If B&H chooses not to voluntarily recognize the union, the center’s lawyers say they will file a petition tomorrow, which will trigger a union election within 30 days.

Orellana was one of the first workers to march into B&H to deliver the demand letter. He wasn’t nervous, he said. He walked with his spine stick-straight. And from time to time, despite the pain, he hoisted his youngest daughter and held her close to his side.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from B&H, which was released a day after publication.

Portraiture and additional reporting by Jonah Markowitz.