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Meet Ramon Hernandez – A Victim of Coca-Cola’s Discriminatory Employment Practices

Name: Ramon Hernandez
Year Born: 1970
Marital Status: Married with Four daughters
Years of Service: Worked at Coca Cola almost 15 years
Location of Facility: Started working for Coca-Cola at the Smithtown, Long Island, branch before transferring to the haulage department at Elmsford, NY.

What Ramon wants to say to Muhtar Kent:

My advice for Mr Kent, is to stick to the truth and stop covering up the evil things done by management at Coca-Cola. If the workers know that upper management is willing to listen, instead of covering up, as Mr Muhtar Kent has chosen to do, then things would be able to get solved in-house, instead of the court system. The truth shall set you free, Mr Kent.

Personal Statement:

I transported finished goods from manufacturing facilities in Elmsford, NY, as well as in Maspeth, NY to the different distribution centers in the NY tri state area. I was also asked to perform the duties of a dispatcher from time to time and also to train new dispatchers, on how to perform his or her duties. From time to time when a supervisor went in vacation, I was also asked to fill in as supervisor.

Through my years of employment, I gained a reputation for being hard-working and error-free, and was considered one of the top drivers at the company. My hard work, however, did not prevent the discriminatory treatment I faced in the form of unfavorable assignment of work and racially charged harassment during my employment. Because I dared to speak up for my rights and the rights of other minority co-workers, I was targeted by the white managers and eventually fired.

There was a lot of tension in my marriage during the time prior and immediately after my firing from Coke as the frustrations of the humiliation of discrimination kept adding up, giving me a sense of impotence and inability to solve the situation. This, coupled with the lack of interest from the company’s representatives to solve the issue, became a subliminal poison to my relationship with my wife.

After my firing from Coca-Cola, insult was added to injury, as I wasn’t able to get unemployment benefits or find a job because Coke told unemployment that I was on a leave of absence and was not terminated. They told perspective employers that I never worked for them. These were major lies! Financial strain was added to the list of issues affecting my marriage.

The lowest point was reached, when my then, 8-year-old daughter wrote a letter to me, asking for permission to start a lemonade stand, so we would not lose our house.
Another hidden danger of being fired is that one loses insurance to protect his/her family. This situation struck my family when my wife broke her foot and we didn’t have insurance. My wife walked around for a week before the insurance from my new job kicked in. The suffering she had to endure was devastating. I wasn’t home, and to keep me calm, she kept telling me, she just twisted it. But when I got home and saw her foot, it was a different color, and extremely swollen. Thank God the insurance kicked in after a few days, and we found out the foot was broken once we went to the doctor.

Lawsuit

FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS

Ramon Hernandez

1. Mr. Hernandez, a Hispanic American, began working at Coca-Cola as a merchandiser in April 1995. He changed positions to become a haulage driver in or around 1999, which was the position he held until his termination in June 2009. Through his years of employment, Mr. Hernandez gained a reputation for being hard-working and error-free, and was considered one of the top drivers at the company. This is evidenced in his being selected to perform dispatcher duties and the duties of his supervisor, Gambino Roche, when he went on vacation.

2. Mr. Hernandez’s hard work, however, did not prevent the discriminatory treatment he faced in the form of unfavorable assignment of work and racially charged harassment during his employment, and in the flagrantly discriminatory pretext for his termination. Because he dared to speak up for his rights and the rights of other minority co-workers, Mr. Hernandez was targeted by the white managers and eventually fired under highly questionable circumstances.

3. Throughout his employment as a driver, Mr. Hernandez and other Hispanic and black drivers faced discrimination in restrictions on the number of hours they could work, while white drivers were allowed to work as many hours as they wished. Numerous times, Mr. Hernandez was recalled to the station before his 8th hour of work so that he would not receive overtime, while white drivers who started earlier in the day were not recalled. This disparate treatment significantly reduced Mr. Hernandez’s driving hours and hence earnings compared to those of white drivers.

4. Mr. Hernandez discovered that much of the haulage work that was supposed to go to the minority drivers was instead going to outside contractors, even though this was against their union contract. Apparently, the driving hours that were outsourced to outside contractors would be taken from the assignments of the minority drivers and not the white drivers. This compounded the existing discrimination in how early the drivers were recalled after their shifts started, and widened the gap between the incomes of minority and white drivers. As an example, Mr. Hernandez found out that a white driver, Paul Mongelli, made significantly more per year than several black drivers who had more years of seniority.

5. Discriminatory treatment also occurred in the picks of vacation days, which was supposed to go by the seniority system in accordance with the union contract. White drivers were favored since management disregarded the method of picking vacation days stipulated by the contract. This disregard of the rules caused minority drivers to be marginalized when it came to vacation picks, since it reduced the number of premium vacation weeks available to them . In 2008, Mr. Hernandez, speaking on behalf of other minority drivers, complained to Human Resources about this disparate treatment. The head of Human Resources, Cathy Clavel, at first said she would try to change the system, but a day later, after she spoke to white manager Joe Aemesigeo, she changed her mind. No changes were made in how vacation days were picked, but instead Mr. Hernandez became a target for retaliation.

6. Through his years of employment, Mr. Hernandez also faced an environment of casual racism from white supervisors. In 2006, white supervisor Larry Moloney would frequently approach Mr. Hernandez and other Hispanic drivers and ask in Spanish, "eres maricon?" which means "are you a homosexual?" Mr. Hernandez was offended by this crude and racist attempt at humor. Mr. Hernandez also observed Mr. Moloney frequently call a black driver, Louis Mack, a "pimp," and once witnessed Mr. Moloney say to Mr. Mack, "come here, it’s been a long time since I kicked a black ass." To Mr. Hernandez’s knowledge, Mr. Moloney was never reprimanded for his racist language.

7. Mr. Hernandez’s white manager from 2007 onward, Mr. Aemesigeo, also harassed and attempted to intimidate minority workers. He was frequently violent around black or Hispanic workers, often throwing or kicking objects, but did not behave in this aggressive way around or towards white workers.

8. In the summer of 2008, the events that would lead to Mr. Hernandez’s termination began with another outburst of racist language. A white co-worker, Chris Suarez, called Mr. Hernandez a "nigger," and Mr. Hernandez found this offensive. He reported this to his manager, Mr. Aemesigeo, who instructed Mr. Hernandez to demand an apology from Mr. Suarez, and that if he refused to apologize Mr. Aemesigeo would handle it. Later on, Mr. Hernandez was scheduled to speak to Human Resources about the incident.

9. Mr. Aemesigeo, who had a close relationship with Mr. Suarez, tried to coach Mr. Hernandez to say to Human Resources that the name-calling was just a case of joking around with "street language." He wanted Mr. Hernandez to lie and say that he found the name-calling acceptable. But Mr. Hernandez instead told the truth to Human Resources, that he was offended by the use of the word. This resulted in Mr. Suarez’s termination. From this incident onward, Mr. Aemesigeo and other white managers became increasingly negative towards Mr. Hernandez, and began to look for ways to retaliate against him.

10. In June 2009, the white managers found such a way to retaliate against Mr. Hernandez. Rallying the other minority drivers, Mr. Hernandez had helped to organize the first election of a union shop steward in 35 years. The previously appointed shop steward lost his position, and a new shop steward, Tom Staropoli, was elected on June 10, 2009. Mr. Staropoli appointed Mr. Hernandez as the alternate shop steward, which meant that Mr. Hernandez would serve as shop steward whenever Mr. Staropoli was not available.

11. The next day, June 11, Mr. Staropoli was not in and Mr. Hernandez was appRoched by another employee, Renan Majano, who had a grievance about being sent home while outside contractors took his driving routes. As alternate shop steward, Mr. Hernandez had the right to investigate this matter. No previous investigation of this type had ever been done before, but Mr. Hernandez knew that he needed a copy of the dispatch logs showing when drivers were assigned to various routes. The fact that no established procedures were in place for such an investigation was corroborated by Mr. Roche, Human Resources Manager Cathy Clavel, and union delegate Ed Webber.

12. Mr. Hernandez went to the dispatch office and asked the white secretary, Susan Ramos, if he could use her terminal, which was already logged in. She gave him permission, and stood behind him as he examined and printed the dispatch log records. After a few minutes, Ms. Ramos stepped out of the office, and after being called outside by Paul Mongelli, came back in and told Mr. Hernandez he did not have permission to use the computer. Mr. Hernandez immediately stopped using it and left the dispatch office. Renan Majano, the co-worker Mr. Hernandez was trying to help, witnessed the entire incident.

13. This incident of Mr. Hernandez printing dispatch logs, despite its minor importance and his legitimate goals, became the pretext for Mr. Hernandez’s termination. Later on June 11, Mr. Staropoli told Mr. Hernandez that he was in trouble for printing the logs, but that branch manager David Prestepino would not terminate him if he did not do it again. However, the next day, Mr. Hernandez was informed that he would be suspended pending investigation.

14. In the ensuing weeks, a Human Resources investigation was done, and Mr. Hernandez was terminated effective June 24, 2009. Mr. Hernandez attended an arbitration hearing on his discharge on July 28. Critically, in her testimony to the arbitrator, the dispatcher lied about what had happened in the dispatch office. Instead of her giving permission to Mr. Hernandez to use the computer as had actually happened, she now alleged that Mr. Hernandez had broken into the office while she was on break, and accessed the computer himself by somehow cracking her password. Mr. Hernandez believes she gave this false testimony under pressure from the white managers, since her job was also at risk at the time. Believing Ms. Ramos’s testimony, the arbitrator sided with Coca-Cola in sustaining the termination. In his decision, the arbitrator wrote that Mr. Hernandez willfully broke into the office and, knowing what he was doing was against company policy, broke into the account and printed out the dispatch records for his "personal use."

15. The arbitrator’s decision was flawed in many ways. First, it failed to consider that there were no established procedures as to what a union shop steward could or could not do to investigate a matter like Mr. Majano’s case. Mr. Hernandez was not aware he was violating company policy when he printed the logs, but instead was making a good-faith effort to perform his role as a shop steward. Second, even if Ms. Ramos’s testimony disagreed with that of Mr. Hernandez, there was another witness, Mr. Majano, who had seen the events. Mr. Majono’s testimony corroborated Mr. Hernandez’s account that he was initially given permission to view and print the logs. Inexplicably, the arbitrator failed to consider this testimony at all in his written opinion. Third, there was no evidence that Mr. Hernandez actually "hacked" into the dispatcher’s computer, nor that he had the ability to do so.

16. The investigation and arbitrator also failed to account for the fact that printing dispatch records, even without a legitimate reason, is something that is frequently done by various employees in the company. Mr. Hernandez has been informed of several other times when this happened – for example, a week before Mr. Hernandez printed out the logs, white driver Paul Mongelli spent two hours printing out logs in front of the supervisor on duty for his personal use. And a few weeks after Mr. Hernandez was fired, Mr. Mongelli again printed dispatch logs without permission in the presence of Mr. Roche and Ms. Ramos. Mr. Mongelli, a white employee, was ever terminated, or even reprimanded, for his unauthorized printing of dispatch logs from the system.

17. Mr. Hernandez is also aware of an even more egregious case of actual "hacking." Mr. Roche once sent a nasty email by accident to the branch manager, and later had his son come in to break into the computer system and delete the email. Mr. Roche was never punished for this egregious violation.

18. Further, the company falsely claimed during the arbitration that proper training was given to workers regarding policies against printing the logs in 2008. Mr. Hernandez believes a document claiming this training occurred was fabricated by the company after his termination, since during the Human Resources investigation Ms. Clavel could not produce this document. Neither Mr. Hernandez nor union steward Mr. Staropoli, nor any of the other drivers, remembers ever receiving such training about computer policies.

19. The real reason for Mr. Hernandez’s termination was that the white managers wanted to retaliate against Mr. Hernandez for his complaint about Mr. Suarez and his activity in organizing the minority workers, which he was just beginning to do as a union steward. Through false testimony and a flawed investigation, Mr. Aemesigeo and other white managers were able to blow the log printing incident out of proportion and use it as a pretext for Mr. Hernandez’s termination. After his termination, a petition signed by over 300 union workers asked for Mr. Hernandez’s reinstatement, but failed to convince the company to change its decision.

20. Even after his termination, the management at Coca-Cola tried to prevent Mr. Hernandez from receiving unemployment insurance payments or finding a new job. After he applied for unemployment benefits, the New York Department of Labor informed Mr. Hernandez in September 2009 that Coca-Cola had told them he was on a "leave of absence," rather than terminated from the company. Mr. Hernandez had to write back confirming that he was terminated to receive unemployment benefits.

21. Later in September 2009, Mr. Hernandez found a job at another company, which required proof of a drug test he had taken at Coca-Cola. However, when the company contacted Coca-Cola, the latter claimed that Mr. Hernandez had never worked there. Only when the company asserted that Coca-Cola was required by law to provide this information did Coca-Cola admit that Mr. Hernandez had worked there and provide the necessary information.

22. Mr. Hernandez has suffered significant emotional harm from the discriminatory work environment at Coca-Cola and his termination and the hostility demonstrated against him even after he no longer worked at Coca-Cola. Not only did his finances suffer after he lost his job, but he also suffered from anxiety, anger, and stress from his unjustified termination. After nearly fifteen faultless years at Coca-Cola, Mr. Hernandez believes he was fired simply for daring to speak up for his rights and the rights of other minority co-workers. Indeed, the fact that the company tried to prevent him from getting benefits and a new job after his termination shows the extent to which the management was willing to go to retaliate against him.