Editor’s note: This story includes references to racist incidents that could be disturbing to readers.
UPDATE: March 7, 2023: Redburn Property Services and four former Black workers have settled a racial discrimination lawsuit alleging the employees were referred to as “the felony crew” and relegated to jobs in an area known as “the dungeon” while White workers were not.
Terms of the Feb. 22 settlement were not disclosed in court documents, and a lawyer for the plaintiffs said she was not permitted to release details about the agreement. Stefanie Shmil, an associate attorney at New York City-based Phillips & Associates, which represented the plaintiffs, told Construction Dive “all parties are happy with the resolution.”
Jeff Buell, principal at Troy, New York-based Redburn Development Partners, which owns the property service business, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But according to the Albany Times Union newspaper, the firm decided to settle the suit “with the greater good in mind.”
“We are not a racist organization. I also know we can be better,” Buell said in a statement, according to the newspaper. He also said the workers who allegedly committed the discrimination described in the lawsuit were no longer employed by Redburn Property Services.
The original story is below.
- Supervisors for a New York developer dubbed a group of all-Black construction workers “the felony crew” on jobsites, subjected them to racial slurs, shorted their pay and told one employee he would have to perform oral sex on a company owner in order to get a raise, according to a racial discrimination lawsuit.
- Four Black workers filed the suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York against Troy, New York-based Redburn Property Services, a commercial and multifamily development, property management and construction firm.
- Members of the all-Black crew were terminated after they complained about the use of racial slurs and pay disparity with Whites and reported to OSHA unsafe conditions in an area known as “the dungeon” where Black employees were assigned to work but Whites were not, the suit alleges.
The complaint alleges a pattern of discrimination and harassment where White supervisors refused to give Black workers safety equipment such as fall protection and respirators on dangerous jobs while supplying it to White workers instead; ordered Black employees to clean up used condoms after a supervisor held a sex party in a model apartment; and threatened to fire Black workers who tested positive for COVID-19 if they disclosed to others that they had contracted the virus.
Workers of color say racist and discriminatory behavior on jobsites is often downplayed as harmless workplace banter by those who perpetrate it. In contrast, the lawsuit said in this case the workers were "repulsed, offended, disturbed, humiliated, and disgusted" by the alleged actions of their employers.
“It’s an old boys club,” said Stefanie Shmil, an associate attorney at New York City-based Phillips & Associates, which is representing the plaintiffs, about the culture of construction jobsites. “They feel like they can get away with behavior a little easier than they could in an office setting. Regardless of whether it’s at a construction site or in an office, no person should be subjected to any sort of discrimination.”
The plaintiffs are seeking a jury trial and unspecified damages.
Redburn did not respond to emails from Construction Dive seeking comment. No one answered the firm’s phone Monday, and the company’s voicemail system was not accepting messages.
In a statement quoted by the Schenectady, New York, Daily Gazette newspaper, Redburn Principal Jeffrey Buell said the firm was investigating the charges.
“The allegations in the complaint are incredibly difficult to read and fly in the face of our core values,” the newspaper quoted Buell as saying. “We have immediately launched an internal investigation but given the seriousness of the allegations, we are in the process of engaging outside counsel to conduct an independent investigation. Outside counsel will have the autonomy and ability to follow the facts wherever they lead and we are fully committed to taking any remedial action that may be appropriate. Our company and its leaders remain committed to a workplace free of harassment and discrimination.”
‘A caste system’
Earlier this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission singled out construction as an industry where reports of racial and sexual discrimination are especially blatant and graphic. Since 2020, reports of nooses and other symbols of hate on jobsites have drawn unwanted attention to the industry, which has tried to clean up its act from within.
Steven Fingerhut, a partner at Phillips & Associates who filed the suit, told the Daily Gazette that Redburn's culture represented “a caste system” where Black workers held a lower status than Whites.
Peter Davoren, CEO of New York City-based Turner Construction, the largest general contractor in the country, has also attributed exclusionary attitudes within the industry to the caste-like hierarchy on jobsites. He and his firm were founding members of Construction Inclusion Week, an industry-led effort to combat hateful actions and speech on projects.