July 13th, 2012

Many Minnesota shoppers are likely familiar with fast fashion chain Wet Seal. The company owns both Wet Seal stores and Arden B stores, which are ubiquitous in malls around the state and generate about $620 million in sales nationwide each year. The retail chain is now being sued by a group of employees who say that the company systematically discriminates against African American employees.

The lawsuit was filed by a former manager from a Wet Seal location who says she was fired the day after the senior vice president emailed a district manager that said “African American dominate – huge issue.” The filing requests class action status for 250 current and former African American managers from Wet Seal locations around the country.

If the allegations are true, then the policy may have affected workers at every level in the store. It is unclear whether other employees with join the suit or if it will be limited to managers.

Employment law experts say that based on the supporting documentation filed with the lawsuit it seems clear that Wet Seal was in the wrong. Other communications from executives indicates that the discrimination was intended to conform to a certain brand image and that they believed consumers would prefer workers with blond hair and blue eyes, although this is not a legitimate reason to deny qualified workers jobs. Discrimination on the basis of race for any reason is illegal under federal laws.

Wet Seal denies the allegations and asserts that it is an equal opportunity employer.

Source: New York Times, “Lawsuit Claims Race Bias at Wet Seal Retail Chain,” Steven Greenhouse, July 12, 2012.

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