Streams

At B&H Photo, Employees Say Not Everything Is Picture Perfect

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Walking in the doors of B&H Photo in Midtown Manhattan is a study in classic New York contradictions. The first thing you hear is the mechanical whirring of conveyor belts overhead, zipping goods from the stock room to the registers in front. The shop takes up an entire city block and the second floor, where the cameras are located, can only be described as cavernous.

While the equipment is state-of-the-art, 21st century goods, there is a large sales force made up mostly of Jewish men, almost all of them
wearing yarmulkes and many of them with curly Hasidic pais that look more 19th century.

While big-box chains and online stores increasingly dominate the retail landscape, New York City remains home to many independent shopping meccas. And for many tourists in the city B&H is one of their first stops.

“The amount of stuff here is insane,” says 24-year-old Sophie Gosselin from Toronto. "It looks like Walmart on a Saturday afternoon. I've never seen a store like this in my life. It’s part of the New York experience, you have to see it."

Another tourist, Sophie Lesourd from France, has her hands full of bags as she shepherds her four kids through the narrow channels and sales islands of B&H.

“I think it's very modern shop, very efficient,” Lesourd says. The family is visiting from Paris for a few days, but B&H is at the top of their list. “I bring all my kids, I say you will see it's very interesting -- so much different things.”

Some of the different things include: a vast array of cameras both digital and film, professional audio recording gear, a television recording studio, telescopes, glass bowls filled with colorfully wrapped Brazilian taffies, a plethora of used equipment as well as a telephoto lens wrapped in camouflage that looks more like a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and costs as much as a new car.

But despite the modernity of the products, there are still some old-fashioned business practices. The store is closed on the Jewish Sabbath, and the owner decided that even the website will not accept orders from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

“There is, in his mind, something more important than whether or not you can buy a UV filter at 4:30 on a Saturday or have to wait until 8:30 on Saturday,” says B&H spokesman Henry Posner.

One thing Posner wouldn’t comment on, however, is a current discrimination lawsuit filed against the store. As far as the large number of Hasidic employees, Posner says they may look different, but they’re as up to date on the news and changes in technology as anyone else.

“The mindset is traditional, the idea of maintaining a distinction -- clothing and behavior --  I think every employee has a cell phone, personal electronics,” Posner says. “By the same token, it's tough to stand around the water fountain talking about the last episode of 'Lost' with a bunch of Hasidic employees.”

The store was sued in 2007 by Hispanic employees who work in the warehouse and were paid less than their Jewish co-workers. The company settled without admitting any wrongdoing, paid out $4.3 million and agreed to regular monitoring by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Currently, seven women are accusing the company of paying female staffers less than their male counterparts -- and reserving the coveted sales positions almost exclusively for men.

The lead plaintiff, Nakisha Cushnie, 30, from the Bronx says the $9 an hour she made was less than half of what her male co-workers told her they were paid. And she says she watched several males get promoted ahead of her.

"Why are there only men in sales and not sales women? We do the same thing -- both have to be trained for that. Why was that not done awhile ago?" Cushnie says.

Cushnie was fired in late June after joining the lawsuit. The store declined to talk about the lawsuit, or anything to do with the make-up of its staff. But it doesn’t take a lengthy investigation to confirm at least one of her allegations: Walk through the store, and you will see very few female employees wearing the green-vest that easily identifies sales clerks. On a series of recent visits, between zero and three of the dozens of sales clerks were women.

“Most right minded people would not want to shop in a store that discriminates against African Americans, Hispanics, or Jews for that matter,” says Attorney Richard Ancowitz, who is representing Cushnie and the other plaintiffs.

But on a recent morning, several customers didn’t seem bothered by the ratio of female to male employees.

“I’ve never seen many women selling this kind of stuff anywhere in the world actually, and I travel around quite a lot,” says David Trojeski, from South Africa.

“I think it should be more multicultural, but I’m talking about the service that I get. I enjoy the service and I’m quite sure everybody else agrees,” says Mary Newman from Florida.

But certainly, basic labor laws require equal opportunities for promotion. Columbia Law School professor Suzanne Goldberg says she’s wondered why B&H hadn’t been sued sooner for gender discrimination.

“It is certainly not permissible for a store to refuse to hire women as sales people, even if the store had certain religious commitments; a store is open to the public,” Goldberg says.

B&H insists it follows the highest ethical standards. Spokesman Henry Posner says it’s in the DNA of the company founded 37 years ago by Herman Schreiber and his wife Blimie: "His overall philosophy permeates our business. He believes that we should run an ethical business with unimpeachable integrity, and he believes that his success is something for which he gives all credit to the Lord. And if you're going to live that lifestyle part of living that lifestyle is obeying the rules.”

But obeying religious rules can be different than obeying civil law.

To win the current suit, this set of seven plaintiffs will have to prove that B&H systematically favored one sex over another. In a statement from their lawyer, B&H denies the allegations and says the store is following all employment laws.

A busy Sunday afternoon at B&H Photo on the third floor, where new camera gear is located.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

A busy Sunday afternoon at B&H Photo on the third floor, where new camera gear is located.

There are nearly 100 desks where customers can get help with camera gear, and most customers are enthusiastic about the service they receive.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

There are nearly 100 desks where customers can get help with camera gear, and most customers are enthusiastic about the service they receive.

Jermy Gastrock, 22, from Austin, TX playing with the nearly $200,000 mixing board at B&H. This was his second stop in the city, after doing his work, he raced over here.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Jermy Gastrock, 22, from Austin, TX playing with the nearly $200,000 mixing board at B&H. This was his second stop in the city. After doing his work, he raced over here. "When I came throuigh the door I did everything I could to keep myself from drooling," he says.

Brazilian taffy in glass bowls can be found throughout the store. There was no one that could explain why this particular candy, but B&H has had candy at least since the store was located on 34th Str
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Kosher Brazilian taffy in glass bowls can be found throughout the store. There was no one that could explain why this particular candy, but B&H has had candy at least since the store was located on 34th Street in the '90s.

Many of the employees are Hasidic and the store is closed for Jewish high holidays, as well on the Sabbath.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Many of the employees are Hasidic and the store is closed for Jewish high holidays, as well on the Sabbath. 

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Comments [29]

Skeptical

I've been to B&H a few times...it really is a bunch of male Hassidic Jews in the stores...its disgusting really...yes the prices are cheap, but its still a bunch of old world Jews that are discriminatory towards women and other races...but the prices are cheap,

Mar. 29 2014 09:13 PM
Joey from NY

I wont shop there nor use the online.

Some on here say they know B&H are discriminating not only amongst women and others too, so they only shop online, not to see it in person. How can you honestly live with your self if you keep giving these people money, if you know it happens, but choose not to see it. Then your being a hypocrite.

Whatever your business whatever your religion, that does NOT give you a right to discriminate against others. I don't care if your Christian, Muslim, Jew or whatever.

As long as these people keep discriminating, and just accept no wrong doing by buying off lawsuits, then so will others, and these type of issues will never go away.

Considering New York is a city that contains every culture on earth, a true 21st century city, the authorities should drag B&H into the present day, as this sort of discrimination truly is a blight on New York itself.

New York should not pander to them and their discriminatory ways, neither should you.

Aug. 31 2013 07:01 AM
Steve Smith from York, PA

I visit B&H every October when I go to the Photo Expo at the Javitts Center. Every B&H employee I ever spoke to was polite and knowledgeable. I frequently order from the catalog. The prices and quick shiping can't be beat. The store is a must see for any photographer visiting New York.

Feb. 23 2013 06:55 PM
dannyglover from nyc

b and h is a horrible store the sale men have no idea of what they are trying to sell. every answer to every question i asked when i went in there was, look i dont know, im not sure or are you going to buy it or i am going to try to sell it to this person like horrrible staff i do think they discriminate agenst none jews. i haven't been there in about 6 years and every time i need some thing related to them i make sure to go to best buy or an other store.

Jan. 20 2013 08:19 PM
EJ

I order from them online so that I don't have to go to the store and witness the discrimination that has been going on for yrs. Went there with my father when I was younger. My parents were millionaires back then and so I am now. I guess some things NEVER change.

Why are white people surprised when non-whites blow them up on 9/11 when they act like a$$holes 99% of the time? People hate you because you are a bunch of racists. YOU ARE THE PROBLEM!

Apr. 22 2011 08:56 PM
Lame Duck

For those yelling discrimination
did review all the staff other then the sales reps.
How about the other devisions, like the mail & phone order Dept.

for smiles from Bronx, NY

Did ever you think that you would stop to shop at Best Buy or anyone other if they where accused of discrimination (lets not forget theres no judgment yet ) of since Bh if a jewish owner why not jump to conclusions

For the record I an not an Bh Employee but do have a relative that works in phone order dept and tells me its only has 10% jewish employees

Oct. 08 2010 01:37 AM

Yes the WNYC is allowing all of these posts to stay online. Next time you feel the urge to speak of iggnorance try a little puncuation and proper spelling before you send a post. I grew up in the sticks but atleast I can type. These people have the right to post as they see fit. Unless these people have violated any laws then the have the legal ability to exercise their constitutional rights such as freedom of speech. Let them be.

Sep. 10 2010 12:48 PM
blecch

wnyc -- youre really letting these ignant comments stay on the boards? youre just giving some toothless bigot the chance to laugh at you and the rest of nyc with his stinking, gin breath

Sep. 06 2010 11:22 PM
St eveMD2 from Baltimore

very orthodox Jews live in some ways in the stone age. As a youngster long ago, I remember how women had to sit separate from men in the conservative temple to which we belonged.

And as far as Israel is concerned, the ultra-orthodox are nuts. They will drop stones on your car if you drive through their area of the city on the sabbath. And some ultra-orthodox have called gay people "worse then bird flu. Imagine that - its a call for the extermination of people who shared hitlers ovens with the close relativess of those people. And gays have been murdered in Israel by the ultra orthodox, eg 2 killed and 10 wounded (2 paralyzed) by an extremist ultraorthodox at the gay community center in Tel Aviv in early August 2009

BTW, I and my wife are Jewish reform, though I tend more toward being agnostic.

The bottom line is that these ultra-orthodox are fundamentalist. NOt terrribly different then the people who gave us 9/11, and lots of the southern Evangelicals whose culture was responsible for slavery , the KKK and segregation. The only difference among them is the brand name of their religion.

Sep. 06 2010 06:26 PM
St eve from Baltimore

very orthodox Jews live in some ways in the stone age. As a youngster long ago, I remember how women had to sit separate from men in the conservative temple to which we belonged.

And as far as Israel is concerned, the ultra-orthodox are nuts. They will drop stones on your car if you drive through their area of the city on the sabbath. And some ultra-orthodox have called gay people "worse then bird flu. Imagine that - its a call for the extermination of people who shared hitlers ovens with the close relativess of those people. And gays have been murdered in Israel by the ultra orthodox, eg 2 killed and 10 wounded (2 paralyzed) by an extremist ultraorthodox at the gay community center in Tel Aviv in early August 2009

BTW, I and my wife are Jewish reform, though I tend more toward being agnostic.

The bottom line is that these ultra-orthodox are fundamentalist. NOt terrribly different then the people who gave us 9/11, and lots of the southern Evangelicals whose culture was responsible for slavery , the KKK and segregation. The only difference among them is the brand name of their religion.

Sep. 06 2010 06:25 PM
John Gishom from NY

Frankly, I went to JR Music World on Park Row (downtown, you know where), I noticed all sales staff are men as well, with the exception of some women behind the counter as cashiers.
What makes me now think of the women over there being incapable of the serving staff, that's why they have been dumped behind the counter just to scan bar codes...
How skillful you gota be doing that?

Sep. 06 2010 12:44 AM
Dave in the Bronx

I was recently in B and H, and it surely is an impressive store. However I will not shop there anymore in response to their practices.

Sep. 05 2010 06:22 PM

Just be honest with yourself, you go into a photo store ready to spend some big bucks with 5 sales people men and 1 woman behind the counter, all not busy, which would you pick?
Regarding America and the anthem, doesn't it say "Land of the free"? Do I get it wrong or the freedom in America is a "restricted" freedom? Ah, excuse me, you have to fight your freedom in the Courts!

Sep. 03 2010 10:34 AM
smiles from Bronx, NY

Given what we now know about B&H's disgraceful anti-women and anti-hispanic employment practices, I will never shop there again. Some readers posted that shopping at B&H is "quaint"; there is nothing charming about discrimination and bigotry.

Sep. 03 2010 09:52 AM
riverd from NYC

B&H is required to follow NYC, NY State and federal laws. If it breaks any of these laws, it must deal with the legal consequences. The same holds true for every business. B&H is no exception.

Sep. 02 2010 11:39 PM
Sara Katz from Brooklyn

I love B&H, they give great service and great prices. But that does not mean I'm okay with discrimination. There is no reason why a woman knowledgeable of photography should not be promoted. The hassidic community has had problems with women's rights in the past, and so I would not be surprised if there is discrimination going on.

Equal opportunity is just that--nobody is saying B&H (or any company) has to hire a woman just because she's a woman. But if a woman has the correct skills and background, she should have the opportunity to work equal to a man who has similar qualification. There is nothing about being male that makes you automatically better qualified to advise people on photo equipment.

Sep. 02 2010 05:45 PM
SD from New York

The Hassidic staff there forms part of B&H's mystique, distinctiveness, and appeal.

(And I'm not hassidic, by the way.)

Sep. 02 2010 04:21 PM
JJ from nyc

Your headline is very one sided. Not great journalism by you.

Sep. 02 2010 12:19 PM

Maybe I should go apply at Hooters then sue them for discrimination. I don't know of any law that says a man can't walk around in a tank top and booty shorts selling hot wings. I know I won't get hired & that's fine by me but I have read the application before when my wife applied. It doesn't say that I can't. So what if B&H has Jewish men working. Yes women should be able to get promotions but look at places like hooters. All women wait staff. All male cooks. Sounds sexist to me. NOT. Seriously people. Some lady gets pissed off because she got passed up for a promotion because there was somebody else who could crunch numbers better than her so now she's pulling the Jew card. That would be like me sueing the medicaid office for not approving my benifits because I'm not black.

Sep. 02 2010 11:19 AM
TheProf1 from Brooklyn

B&H is a private business. They don't take government funds in anyway. Why can't they hire 100% Jewish chasidish men if they want to? OSHA has a right to see what they do. Unemployment, workmens comp, but NLRB? Nope.

Sep. 02 2010 09:47 AM
Bert from lower east side

B&H is where I shop, know people who work there and well, how about the fancy stores hiring chasids...I don't see any in Best Buy, or in J&R another great store...many people make a living here, the customers get great prices, service and respect, and no tsouris....always someone out there trying to screw the Jew....

Sep. 01 2010 06:59 PM
Nick

B&H isn't a huge conglomerate of hundreds of stores. I personally don't mind if a small company happens to hire more of one race or another. I don't find that racist I find it realist.

If I have a store with 8 employees am I expected to get one of every color and size?

Sexism is another issue entirely and I chose not to comment on that.

Sep. 01 2010 03:07 PM
randal from NYC

I love shopping at B&H as much as anyone -- and more than most (as a professional photographer) but discrimination is discrimination and is against the law (or should be) in the workplace.

Jewish or Hasidic discrimination is no different than white supremacist discrimination. The Aryan Brotherhood also considers themselves to be a put-upon minority.

Sep. 01 2010 12:27 PM
Henry Posner from New York, NY

I was extremely disappointed to read, "While the equipment is state-of-the-art, 21st century goods, there is a large sales force of Jewish men..." There is no argument that some of our store sales staff is Jewish. There is no argument that some wear yarmulkes or that some are Hasidic.

However, our sales staff is large and generally as diverse as New York itself. It includes orthodox and non-orthodox Jews and non-Jews alike.

Sep. 01 2010 10:16 AM
sam from brooklyn ny

There isn't a bigger discrimination by saying "While the equipment is state-of-the-art, 21st century
goods, there is a large sales force of Jewish men, almost
all of them wearing yarmulkes and many of them with
curly Hasidic pais that look more "19th century." and you tell me who is discriminating, always when the media writes something about jews, they tear them down like they are ugly looking people, you people get a life and don't be jealous when someone is succesful in business

Sep. 01 2010 08:44 AM
Manola from NYC

I stopped shopping at B&H a long time ago because I noticed the discrimination. I don't shop at businesses that don't respect labor laws or discriminate. I also don't shop at Walmart; shoppers are complicit in the act of discrimination and unfair workplace practices when they continue shopping with no regard to how a business is run.

Sep. 01 2010 07:56 AM
yviens from Brooklyn

Let the court decide!
Herman Schreiber and his wife Blimie would not do discrimination. It's culture and for the court this is a problem.

Sep. 01 2010 06:49 AM
yidala from Brooklyn

I know the guy in the photo. Was very helpful to me on my visit to b&h. I think all the negativey thay say in here is because people are haveing a bad eye how there business is growing on this really nice department store. May thay continue with lots of luck

Aug. 31 2010 11:53 PM
bowildhax from northeast

B&H should not be any different than "Hooters", an Amish Farmers Market in Lancaster, PA or any other business that has a theme. B&H should be allowed to hire who they want.

Aug. 31 2010 08:39 PM

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