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More workers, new allegations in race discrimination case against Newport News Industrial

NEWPORT NEWS — More than two dozen current and former workers have been added to a race discrimination lawsuit against Newport News Industrial Corp. — with newly filed allegations featuring everything from nooses at the workplace to a racist song sent to a black worker.

The original lawsuit, filed by eight workers in September, contends that workers at the company — a division of Newport News Shipbuilding — were subjected to a hostile work environment and denied promotions and pay increases because they are black.

The amended complaint, with 26 additional plaintiffs, hits even harder. Filed in U.S. District Court in Norfolk on Feb . 11, the new complaint goes into great detail in its 203 pages.

In one case, the suit alleges, a white supervisor holding a noose showed it to a black worker while a white co-worker laughed. Another time, the suit contends, black workers discovered a noose hanging from an air filter.

In another new allegation, the complaint contends that a white worker sent a black worker a link to a racially offensive song on YouTube, then asked him what he thought. The video appeared to show white young people dancing happily to a racist country song.

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

Joshua Friedman, a New York-based attorney representing the plaintiffs, said he's surprised the issues at Newport News Industrial "are still going on" despite an initial notice in January 2013 that a lawsuit would be coming, followed by the first version of the lawsuit in September.

"I can't see that they did anything at all to improve the situation," Friedman said. "It's still going on. It's insane. I can't wrap my head around it. It's as if Huntington Ingalls considers (Newport News Industrial) the poor stepchild, and it's not entitled to any managerial resources."

Newport News Industrial is a division of Newport News Shipbuilding, which in turn is a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, a publicly traded company based in Newport News.

But Newport News Industrial, or "NNI," is not physically located at the shipyard. Instead, it's in an industrial park on Enterprise Drive, off Warwick Boulevard near Fort Eustis.

The company has not yet filed a response, either to the initial lawsuit or the newly filed complaint. Christie Miller, a spokeswoman for Newport News Shipbuilding, declined to comment on the new allegations, just as the company declined to address the previous complaint in September.

"We do not comment on pending litigation," Miller wrote in an email.

Founded in 1965, NNI provides a range of work for nuclear power plants in the electrical generation industry, including on tanks, piping and pressure systems. It uses many welders, pipefitters, electricians and other workers.

Of the 34 plaintiffs now in the case, 21 still work for NNI, with the rest no longer there. The lawsuit includes wrongful termination or retaliation claims for many of those who are no longer with the company.

New allegations

Last July or August, the newly amended suit alleges, a black worker, Chris Payton, was looking for his white supervisor "to ask him a question about the job he was working on." But as he approached, the suit says, he noticed the supervisor had a yellow rope in his hand, manipulating it in his hand, as another white co-worker laughed.

"OK, so what is that for?," the black worker asked, according to the suit.

The white supervisor, the suit asserts, snickered, "Um … you know what it's for," holding it up "so that Mr. Payton could see it more clearly," as the other white worker "continued to laugh and snicker."

The same supervisor, the suit contends, had previously "expressed his appreciation of slavery to his African-American subordinates," widely using racial epithets and referring to temporary plant closures as "plantation" shutdowns.

When one worker complained, the lawsuit says, he was soon assigned to "sweep floors or clean metal for 10 hours straight," which he hadn't been assigned to do previously. After seeing that treatment, the suit says, Payton decided not to report the noose incident to his supervisor's superiors.

That was one of the lawsuit's two allegations regarding nooses.

On Dec. 1, the suit asserts, black workers "saw a noose hanging from an air filter on one of their projects," with the way it was knotted making it "obvious that it was a noose." One of the black workers "took the noose down and ripped it up."

A photograph of the knotted yellow rope is included in the complaint.

"This is the noose that was left in plain view for the African-American plaintiffs to find," the suit says, with the picture provided because words cannot "adequately convey … how vile the experience was for the plaintiffs."

"The noose had no purpose … connected to the work in progress, thus the sole purpose was to intimidate, and frighten," the suit says.

The amended complaint also alleges that in October — "just after this suit was filed" — a white co-worker known to make racially offensive jokes texted a link to a YouTube video, and asked a black worker "what he thought of it."

In the video, "a large all-white crowd of young couples is dancing to a country tune," the suit says. They appear to be line dancing at a country music bar.

Friedman said it could be that the racially offensive song was dubbed over a different song that the people were actually dancing to, though he said that wouldn't change the shock of seeing it.

"As frightening as the lyrics are, what is arguably more shocking is seeing … young white men and women dancing contentedly to the music, which was presumably part of the message" intended by the white co-worker, the lawsuit says.

The complaint also 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.

Black trades workers "are not allowed to talk to co-workers" 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 alleges, 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."