Delbert Gaskins and Arnold White said they couldn't believe the constant racial slurs and offensive jokes from their white supervisors at BFI Waste Services LLC.
"It was like a racist little club," said Christopher E. Brown, an attorney for the men. "They were humiliated, demeaned and mocked."
A federal jury in Alexandria agreed. Last week, a majority-white jury awarded $2.6 million each to Gaskins, 46, and White, 49, in a lawsuit against BFI. Legal experts said it is the largest racial discrimination verdict won by individuals in Virginia history and one of the larger discrimination verdicts nationwide.
"This is a big verdict nationally as well as locally," said Joseph Sellers, who runs the civil rights law practice at Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll in the District. "It may also rank among the worst in terms of treatment in the workplace. This is what you might have expected back in the 1960s. These are Jim Crow types of phrases."
An attorney for BFI, Abbey Hairston, said the company "strongly disagrees with the verdict and believes that it is inconsistent with the facts and the law." She said BFI intends to challenge the award in post-trial motions and possibly in appeals.
Gaskins and White declined to comment yesterday through their attorney. But in court documents and at the three-day trial last week, they accused former BFI supervisors of using racial epithets to describe them and other African American garbagemen. Brown said those words included the most insulting slurs and even comparisons to animals.
Gaskins, whose wife is white, said in the suit that he was asked by one of his bosses at BFI's former Merrifield division why African Americans were taking all of the white women.
Brown said the harassment began in the mid-1990s and continued through 2002, when Gaskins and White filed complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Gaskins, of Triangle, began working at the Merrifield office in 1996. White, of Dale City, started working there in 1989.
The two men still work out of the facility, which has been sold to another company, as "roll-off drivers," making pickups from large industrial dumpsters in areas of Alexandria and Arlington and Fairfax counties.
Brown said supervisors constantly criticized the men's work in ways they would not use with white drivers, often muttering racial epithets under their breath. The supervisors also are accused of telling racist jokes in the office.
In their lawsuit, the men allege that a black woman who worked in the office was referred to as a "black whore" and a "hooker."
"These supervisors did not like the fact that black men who were uneducated were making more money than they were," said Brown, a partner at Brown, Brown & Brown, a law firm in Alexandria.
Brown said the men initially were afraid to complain about the treatment. They decided to go forward with their grievances after several newer hires began organizing workers, and BFI began an investigation of workers' complaints in the late 1990s. Brown said little changed as a result, although one of the supervisors was fired. Another, he said, was promoted.
The men initially filed separate lawsuits in federal court in Alexandria. Two U.S. District judges, Claude M. Hilton and Gerald Bruce Lee, initially dismissed the cases.
But this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit sent the cases back for trial, and they were later consolidated.
Writing for a three-judge panel of the appeals court, Judge J. Michael Luttig said "a reasonable jury could find that both Gaskins and White suffered harassment."
The ruling said that some of the terms Gaskins and White accused their supervisors of using repeatedly were "insulting" and that the evidence showed a work environment that was "racially hostile."