Stephen Nessen, Reporter, WNYC News
Stephen Nessen reports for the WNYC Newsroom and can often be heard live on Morning Edition.
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.