Two African American warehouse workers who held jobs at the Walmart Distribution Center in far southwest suburban Elwood have filed racial discrimination complaints against Walmart.
The workers, Mark Balentine and Laseant Sardin, claim that after the retailer insourced jobs at that facility from a third-party contractor, Walmart disproportionately rescinded job offers to African American employees based on criminal history even though many of the employees had been working in those jobs for years despite their prior convictions.
Christopher Williams, an attorney from the National Legal Advocacy Network, is representing Balentine and Sardin. Williams said his clients are asking the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to launch an investigation.
Between 100 and 200 other African American workers were terminated from their jobs after Walmart insourced the positions, due to background checks, according to Williams. He believes they could be eligible for class-action legal status.
“We believe that Walmart’s policies and practices related to the background checks are unlawful in that they have a disparate impact on African Americans,” Williams said.
In January, Walmart announced that it would take over management of the distribution center from Schneider Logistics, according to theherald-news.com. In all, nearly 600 workers were laid off at the 3.4 million-square-foot facility at the end of March. Walmart pledged to hire back as many of the workers as it could.
Williams said employers often look at employees’ criminal histories to gauge whether they will be reliable employees. But he said Walmart should have made individualized, specialized assessments for his clients to take into account their work histories, as well.
“What could be more predictive than the fact that they were performing this job effectively, in fact, so effectively that Walmart initially offered them the job?” said Williams.
Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg said the company did offer “individualized circumstance reviews” to all employees at the Elwood facility who wished to offer context to their criminal histories. He said the company’s goal was to retain as many employees as possible in the transition, but he could not specify how many employees lost their jobs due to background checks.
“We understand the importance of providing second chances and our background checks include a thoughtful and transparent review process to help ensure everyone is treated fairly,” Lundberg wrote in a written statement. “This includes offering candidates the opportunity to provide context to their record.”
Initially, employees and labor organizations that were connected with the facility celebrated the news that Walmart would make the longtime employees direct hires. The change, which took effect earlier this year, meant many workers would gain higher wages and benefits.
“They told me that I was going to get a raise, from $16.35 to $18.65 an hour,” said Balentine, a 52-year old who said he worked for three years in the warehouse as a quality assurance associate. “The trouble started in early March when they started talking about background checks.”
Balentine said he was told it was a conviction for possessing cocaine nearly 20 years ago that ruined his prospects of continuing on at the warehouse as a direct employee of Walmart. He said he’s changed since then, becoming a mentor to other young people who are re-entering civilian life after serving time in prison and serving as a deacon in his church.
“We need change. I’m looking out for the person behind me. The 17-year-old that’s getting in trouble today and who sees what happens to me and then he decides, ‘What’s the point in changing? They aren’t going to give me a chance anyway,’” he said.
Sardin, a 59-year-old, African-American man who loaded boxes off of trucks at the facility for two years before Walmart informed him he would not be retained, said he was terminated because of a felony theft conviction in 1985.
“I just need to be treated right,” Sardin said. “And to go back 34 years and tell me I’m not eligible to work no more? I don’t think that’s fair.”
Sardin, who once battled drug use as well, said that he had worked hard to stay out of trouble.
“Me taking care of my business, doing what I had to do, being a responsible, productive member of society,” he said. “And you all just want to snatch it back from me. And it hurts. It really hurts.”
Odette Yousef is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @oyousef.