A Haitian immigrant who built a multi-million business in New Jersey is now fighting to survive financially — a victim not of the recent earthquake in his native country — but of racial discrimination in America that was every bit as devastating.
In a lawsuit filed last April in Essex County, New Jersey, Ludin Pierre, the minority owner of the Arescue Staffing Agency, a business that supplied temporary workers primarily to Home Depot, charged that the giant home improvement retailer and two national staffing agencies conspired to steal away his workers. Pierre calls it “tempnapping” — a process in which a temp worker is “kidnapped” away from one temp agency to perform the same work at another.
Pierre’s temp agency, then known as Cosmo Temps, was based in Irvington, New Jersey. Cosmo fed Home Depot with temporary workers for the retailer’s international distribution centers in Cranbury and Dayton, New Jersey, and Montgomery, New York. At its high point, Cosmo was providing Home Depot with 200 workers — representing 80% of Cosmo’s business. Under Cosmo’s agreement with its workers, the workers were not allowed to work for Home Depot for 90 days after their last day working for Cosmo.
Around 2005, Home Depot began working with two national temp companies, allowing these companies to open site offices inside Home Depot’s distribution facilities. Cosmo was literally left out in the cold. Home Depot told Cosmo it could become a “secondary supplier” to one of the national temp chains. Cosmo signed under the national chain as directed by Home Depot managers, with the stipulation that the national chain would not hire any Cosmo employee who was assigned to Home Depot.
Pierre says that one of the national chains, Staffmark, sent a letter to Cosmo’s workers requiring them to terminate their employment with Cosmo, and shift to Staffmark — or lose their assignment with Home Depot. In 2009, Staffmark notified Cosmo that all its workers at Home Depot were being terminated. “These three giants chopped our company in three,” Pierre explains, “and each one holds a piece for the sole benefit of Home Depot.” In his lawsuit, Pierre charges that “the loss of business caused by… .tempnapping is causing irreparable injury… It is having the effect of destroying (my) business, as well as destroying existing employee relations and the business’ reputation.” Pierre asserts that these companies broke their contractual agreements, and “have not played by the rules of the game.”
Pierre says he was dropped by Home Depot because “our only fault is we are a black, Haitian-owned company.” He notes that Home Depot gave contracts to several white-owned staffing agencies, but passed over the only black minority -owned company — despite the fact that Cosmo was supplying about 75% of the company’s temporary assignment needs at the time.
Pierre recalls at one Home Depot meeting, a Regional Human Resources employee at the company said, “We don’t like Haitians, and we don’t want them working here.” Pierre says Home Depot officials suggested that someone else should be representing his staffing agency. “One manager told me, ‘Change your front color.'” Pierre has a letter from a former Home Depot manager who apologizes for the anti-Haitian remarks that were reported to him, and adds: “I also feel bad that you lost many of your good workers due to the other agency’s recruiting them within Home Depot’s facilities. I don’t think that was right, and we should not have let that happen.”
Over the years, Home Depot has been hammered repeatedly with racial discrimination lawsuits. In Washington, D.C., in suburban Detroit, in Indianapolis, on Long Island — Home Depot workers sued their employer for racial discrimination. In 2004, two African-American workers in Los Angeles filed racial discrimination lawsuits claiming a Home Depot supervisor laughed as white employees dressed in Ku Klux Klan hoods harassed the black workers. In the same year, Home Depot agreed to pay $5.5 million to settle a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by employees in the company’s Colorado stores.
In New Jersey, where Ludin Pierre did business, the situation was not much better. In October of 2003, ten foreign-born Hispanic and black workers at Home Depot distribution centers in South Brunswick and Cranbury filed a lawsuit charging the company with discriminatory treatment. These workers — at the same distribution center with Ludin Pierre’s employees — — sought class action status on behalf of 500 minority workers at Home Depot’s distribution centers throughout the state. They claimed they were paid less than white workers, not promoted or trained, and were subjected to harsher work conditions. In October of 2007, three nooses, carefully tied and hanging from a shelf in Aisle 14 of a Home Depot store in Passaic, New Jersey once again put the home improvement retailer in the headlines.
By the fall of 2009, Ludin Pierre realized he didn’t have the funds to keep up his legal battle with Home Depot and the staffing agencies. He petitioned the court to give him extra time to find a pro-bono lawyer. The court gave Pierre an extension to seek legal help, but when he could not find representation, Home Depot and the staffing agencies petitioned the court to dismiss the case “for failure to obtain counsel.” Pierre’s lawsuit was dismissed “without prejudice” in October of 2009.
In its corporate publications, Home Depot says its “supplier diversity” strategy includes minority-owned businesses. “We will actively seek targeted diverse businesses and provide them the opportunity to partner with The Home Depot to provide competitively priced, high quality goods and services to our customers.” Home Depot boasts that is has “strong partnerships” with groups like the National Minority Supplier Development Council, Rainbow PUSH, and the Minority Business Development Agency.
All of that is just rhetoric, says Pierre. He scoffs at Home Depot’s $100,000 contribution to the Haitian relief effort. The Home Depot Foundation is matching gifts up to $1,000 from Home Depot workers for Haitian relief. But Pierre says the workers who were “tempnapped” from him “receive less pay today than they were receiving when they were under our management.”
Ten years ago, Home Depot’s then-Chairman Bernie dismissed the racial discrimination lawsuits against his company by saying, “Stupid things happen when you nave people work for each other.” Marcus said because of his company’s ambitious expansion plans,”We need anybody with a brain in their head [who] is motivated. We need them, desperately. I don’t care if they have four legs.”
Ludin Pierre says that’s an apt analogy to his situation — because he and his workers were treated like animals. He remembers a Home Deport Human Resource employee telling a middleman, “As long as you are bringing Haitians here, you are not going anywhere with Home Depot.” “In many meetings,” Pierre says, “I was personally ridiculed by the Managers. One of the Home Depot managers told our site manager, “We don’t understand how Home Depot could hire an agency whose owner is a Haitian immigrant.”
Today, Ludin Pierre’s business has been crushed, and he has no funds to continue his battle against the giant corporations. “A minority company has no resources to fight a major company in court,” Pierre explains. “If Home Depot ever gets a contract in the reconstruction of Haiti, it will only be to get their contribution back ‘many fold,’ considering that Home Depot does not like Haitians and thinks we are stupid.”
Pierre remembers clearly when Home Depot started to take his employees. He tried to protest the move. “A Home Depot manager told me: ‘You talk, you’re gone.’ Pierre kept talking, until a corporate earthquake buried this Haitian entrepreneur in the rubble.