Hermiston home manufacturer sued for alleged civil rights violations
Two former employees of a Hermiston home manufacturing company claim they endured years of anti-Black racism, discrimination and in one woman’s case, sexual harassment, only to be fired after reporting the incidents to managers, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court this week.
The complaint comes from two Black women who worked for Marlette Homes between 2018 and 2020. The company also does business as Clayton Hermiston, and is registered as CMH Manufacturing West, Inc., part of billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, which controls a manufactured home empire, and has itself faced criticism in 2015 for allegedly exploiting people of color through predatory lending practices.
Twin sisters Lisa Williams and Angela Pierce, both 55, accuse the company’s Hermiston branch of a hostile work environment, sexual harassment, race-based discrimination, wrongful termination and whistleblower retaliation.
“Ms. Williams and Ms. Pierce heard and saw (the n-word) used in their environment, saw swastika symbols in the bathroom of Defendant, and were subject to physical assault and other dangers,” according to the complaint.
“We have no comment at this time,” Marlette Homes Human Resources Manager Erinn Gailey-Genack said when reached by phone Wednesday.
The Tennessee-based corporate office for CMH Manufacturing did not respond to requests for comment.
State records show the company denied similar allegations of illegal conduct earlier this year, while admitting to racial slurs appearing in company bathrooms.
The lawsuit describes times when Pierce and Willams were the only Black employees, “and this seemed specifically targeted at them.” Since 2017, the company has reported hiring six employees who self-identified as Black or African American.
Last year, the sisters sent complaints to Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries. In its response, Clayton Hermiston agreed Pierce reported offensive language written in the bathrooms to management.
“Each time this has occurred, [Clayton Hermiston] has fully investigated the incident and took steps to prevent future occurrences, including by restricting access to Sharpie markers,” attorney Krishna Balasubramani wrote to BOLI investigators, adding that the company “has never been able to identify who wrote the offensive racial slur on the wall or even determine whether it was an employee or a visitor that did so.”
The sisters claim the bathrooms were repeatedly defaced with swastikas and the n-word. At the time, Pierce was a janitor who cleaned these spaces. Williams worked on finishing the mobile homes and cleaning them. The complaint alleges Williams was subjected to an excessive workload and sexual harassment by a coworker. The lawsuit names individual supervisors for allegedly aiding and abetting the behavior.
According to attorney Meredith Holley, Williams wrote a letter in August addressed to Warren Buffett himself, asking for help.
“Due to my legitimate complaints … I have been retaliated against through bogus and untrue disciplinary write ups,” reads a copy of the Aug. 8 letter provided by Holley.
Three weeks later, Williams was written up again. The document, also provided by her attorney, barred her from continuing to discuss “this or any prior incidents, curse, or otherwise disrupt your team in any way.”
“You will also not send any more letters or complaints to Home Office unless it [sic] a new or different issue.”
Williams refused to sign the formal reprimand. She was fired 10 days later.
In its response to the BOLI complaint, Clayton Homes denied reprimanding Williams for contacting the corporate office. It asserts she was terminated “for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons.”
Clayton Hermiston told state investigators that Pierce was fired for “hostility and aggressive, insubordinate behavior.” Pierce alleges she was terminated for intervening in a meeting to support her sister in making discrimination claims.
Last month, the state labor agency suspended its investigation without reaching a determination because the women withdrew the complaints to pursue a federal lawsuit.
Clayton Hermiston has reported having about 190 employees. Nationwide, Clayton Homes’ building affiliates employ more than 12,000 people, according to the company’s website.
Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting