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Lawsuit alleges race discrimination at division of Huntington Ingalls

NEWPORT NEWS — A group of eight past and present employees are suing a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, alleging they were subjected to a hostile work environment and denied promotions and pay increases because they are black.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Newport News, asserts that supervisors at Newport News Industrial Corp. — which operates under Newport News Shipbuilding's management — have discriminated against black employees for several years.

The complaint contends black workers are subject to racist jokes and epithets, get lesser treatment than whites on pay, daily assignments, training and overtime — and are more quickly reprimanded or fired for similar offenses.

The suit paints a picture of a workplace where white employees are coddled and take long breaks, while black employees are often laughed at but do the most difficult work.

"As part of the harassment, (Newport News Industrial) assigns more physically intense, more dangerous, and dirtier work to African-American production and maintenance employees," the suit says, asserting that white employees are typically paid more than black workers with similar or better skills.

Six former workers — several of them fired by the company — and two current workers brought the litigation.

The complaint, which runs 60 pages, goes into painstaking detail about a series of humiliations and maltreatment that the black employees contend they were subjected to by white employees and supervisors.

Black trades workers "are not allowed to talk to coworkers" during the workday, the suit asserts, while white workers "are able to congregate and socialize throughout the day." Also, the suit says, "Caucasian trades people, unlike African-Americans, are able to take personal calls while working and are able to text on their cell phones throughout the day."

Black workers are expected to sit "on the floor or on buckets" during the day, the suit says, while white employees doing similar work get chairs.

Yet complaints to supervisors have fallen on deaf ears, the suit maintains. "Plaintiffs' complaints … about (Newport News Industrial's) hostile work environment have been ignored," the suit says. "African-American workers are subject to retaliation for complaining. Supervisors that openly harass African-American workers are promoted."

The suit asserts that the treatment is part of a "pattern or practice" at the company that violates not only federal protections against discrimination, but also an executive order that President Barack Obama issued in July, entitled "Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces."

"A judgment on this action would require that (Newport News Industrial) be barred by the Department of Labor from receiving federal contracts," the suit maintains. The company holds contracts with the Department of Energy, NASA and the Department of Defense, the suit says.

The suit doesn't ask for a specific dollar amount, but asks that plaintiffs be awarded damages "to be determined by the jury at the time of trial."

Newport News Industrial — or "NNI," as it's often called — is run as a unit of Newport News Shipbuilding, but is not at the shipyard. Instead, it's on Enterprise Drive, off Warwick Boulevard near Fort Eustis.

Asked for a response to the suit, Newport News Shipbuilding spokeswoman Christie Miller said the company had no comment. "We don't comment on pending litigation," she said.

Founded in 1965, Newport News Industrial provides a range of work for nuclear power plants in the commercial electric generation industry. It fabricates, inspects and services such things as tanks, piping and pressure systems, widely using welders, pipefitters, electricians and other trades workers.

The suit says NNI employs between 200 and 300 people, with between 150 and 200 being tradespeople. About a third of the workers are permanent employees, the suit says, while the rest are temporary workers.

But while there are only 10 black employees on the ranks of the permanent workers, the suit says, about 40 percent of the temps are black. The suit also contends that it's rare for a black worker to be a supervisor at NNI.

Of the eight plaintiffs, two are from Newport News, two from Hampton, and one each from Portsmouth and Chesapeake. Another lives in Roper, N.C., and another in Jonesboro, Ga. Several supervisors are discussed in the complaint, but NNI is the sole defendant.

The lawsuit was filed by Joshua Friedman, a New York-based attorney who sued Liebherr-America in 2002, alleging race discrimination at the company's Hampton truck plant. That case, brought by 26 workers, resulted in a $4 million settlement in 2004.

Later, a 2007 race discrimination case Friedman filed against NNI on behalf of one worker was dismissed.

Currently, Friedman also has a class-action gender discrimination suit pending against BAE Systems Norfolk Ship Repair — and he says the current NNI case could become a class-action case as well. James H. Shoemaker Jr., an attorney with Patten, Wornom, Hatten & Diamonstein, is the local counsel handling the case with Friedman.

Here's a small sampling of some of the lawsuit's myriad assertions:

•That a supervisor "has bragged" that "he has a black book listing the names of African-American employees he has fired." The suit says he reprimands black workers for getting coffee in the morning, but not white employees.

•That another supervisor "demeans African-American workmanship," commenting "that a majority of African-American welders at NNI are not capable of good work."

•That a white employee wore a T-shirt captioned "Redneck Fishing." According to the suit, the T-shirt featured a white man fishing and holding a black man upside down and underwater. The suit says a black worker complained, but that nothing was done.

•That "multiple Caucasian employees hired within the last six years with little or no experience in the trades" have gotten supervisor jobs over blacks with over 20 years of experience. For example, the suit said, a 23-year-old white worker was taught to weld by a black employee, then soon advanced beyond the black employee by getting a job that was never advertised.

•That black employees were often "followed" by supervisors into the bathrooms as a way of monitoring them, while white employees were not.

•That a black worker was fired for leaving his grinder on, while another was fired for leaving a piece of "slag" on his weld. White workers "were rarely subject to a reprimand, let alone fired," for doing the same thing, the suit says.

•That when two workers using a crane together accidentally dropped a heavy metal object, the black employee was subjected to drug testing while the white employee was not.