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Federal agency finds Wet Seal discriminated against black manager

December 03, 2012|By Shan Li
  • The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's findings may bolster a separate discrimination lawsuit against the company alleging a high-level policy of bias against its African American workers.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's findings may… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

It’s just the latest problem to plague Wet Seal: The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has determined that the fashion retailer discriminated against a former African American store manager.

The federal agency said that Nicole Cogdell, who once worked as a manager of a Wet Seal store in Pennsylvania, was “subjected to a hostile work environment and the conditions were so intolerable, her only course was to resign.”

The commission found evidence that Wet Seal corporate managers openly stated that in order to be profitable, the retailer had to retain workers with “the Armani look” – meaning blond, thin and blue-eyed. One high-level executive even sent an email to underlings in 2009 pointing out that the dominance of African American workers as a "huge issue."

Calls to Wet Seal were not immediately returned.

The commission's findings may bolster a separate discrimination lawsuit against the company alleging a high-level policy of bias against its African American workers.

Filed in July, the lawsuit accuses the struggling clothier of adopting a policy of firing and denying promotions and pay to its black employees in favor of hiring white workers who better fit the company's "brand image."

Cogdell, one of the named plaintiffs in the suit, claimed that she was fired after a senior executive visited the store and said that the manager should have “blond hair and blue eyes.”

ReNika Moore, one of the lawyers representing Cogdell, said the commission findings can be used as evidence in the lawsuit, which is seeking class-action status on behalf of more than 250 management-level employees at Wet Seal.

“The plaintiff can and will use it as evidence of discrimination,” Moore said.

Even aside from the lawsuit, Wet Seal has seen a tumultuous year, which includes plummeting sales and an ousted chief executive. After a tangle with an activist shareholder, the chairman and three board directors were also replaced in October.

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Follow Shan Li on Twitter @ShanLi

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