Dominique Hill and Irving Smith Jr. had good jobs.
Last year, Hill worked as a bartender at P.F. Chang’s in Tysons Corner and Smith had recently been promoted to bartender at Wildfire grill, also in Tysons. Each had more than a decade of experience working in restaurants and was making $700 to $900 a week.
But last summer both of them walked away from their jobs for a chance at something better: the opportunity to work at BLT Prime, the steakhouse in the luxury Trump International Hotel, Washington D.C.
The couple said they soon discovered their hopes were misplaced. In a civil complaint filed Wednesday morning in D.C. Superior Court, Hill, a former BLT employee, and Smith, a current one, allege that the Trump Organization and hotel managing director Mickael Damelincourt saw to it that the restaurant routinely steered black employees to less lucrative shifts and subjected them to discriminatory behavior by other staff and by guests. The two men are joined in the case by another former BLT employee, JaNette Sturdivant.
Hill said he was the first bartender the restaurant hired last summer, before the hotel opened, but was almost exclusively given only lunch shifts.
“Some days I would just stand there all day long and have no customers,” he said. He routinely made $300 to $400 for a 30- to 35-hour workweek at BLT. He claims only four black employees still work at BLT after the hotel opened with 15 or more.
Smith, who works as a BLT server, said he was demoted to assistant server early on and rarely given prime shifts, where weekly earnings averaged $600 to $1,500 and which allegedly went instead to newly hired white and Latino employees.
“They started hiring all these people and instead of putting them on day shifts they was giving them night shifts and keeping us on day shift. Next thing I know, within the month all the black people were on the day shift,” he said.
In a statement, the Trump Organization, which runs the hotel, called the allegations “utterly baseless,” particularly because “the Hotel never employed these individuals.”
“Rather, the plaintiffs worked for a third-party restaurant company that is solely responsible for the direction, supervision, and management of its own employees. In short, this lawsuit appears to be nothing more than a desperate, politically-motivated publicity stunt. We look forward to litigating this matter,” said Amanda Miller, a spokeswoman for the Trump Organization, in a statement.
ESquared Hospitality, which operates the restaurant, said it “wholeheartedly” disputed the allegations and that the employees “did not previously voice or file complaints through any of the proper channels.”
“Had they done so, BLT Prime would have immediately taken the alleged complaints seriously and investigated them to the fullest extent and would have taken appropriate action where warranted,” the company said.
Trump opened the hotel last fall, weeks before he was elected president. He no longer runs his company and has placed his ownership into a trust, but the family name still adorns everything from the sign out front to the cocktail napkins. After the election, Smith claimed one of his co-workers began making racist statements to him and that Smith’s complaints to management fell on deaf ears.
“He used to say ‘This is white America time, you need to get used to it, and if you don’t get used to it you should go work somewhere else,’ ” he alleged.
The lawsuit’s allegations about the restaurant stand in contrast to the operation of the larger hotel, which has a staff that is widely diverse by race, gender and nationality. On a busy Friday night in September, when the hotel unveiled a new dessert menu, staff who appeared to be black worked in prominent positions as bartender, hostess, server, valet and other posts.
A reporter observing six shifts of morning, afternoon and evening work at BLT, viewed staffs that appeared to be diverse as well, although evening bartenders appeared to usually be white. “We work diligently to create a culture of equal opportunity employment with a zero-tolerance policy for any kind of discrimination regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or otherwise,” ESquared said in its statement.
Gregg C. Greenberg, a Maryland employment attorney, said racial discrimination cases are often difficult to prove.
“If you have a client that says, ‘I have been discriminated against,’ how and why are you able to prove it? Do you have emails or policies in place that are objectively discriminatory? Or do you just have the feeling that someone there is out for you?” he said.
Smith and Hill, unlike most workers in the hotel, were not employed directly by the Trump Organization but by ESquared. Hill produced paperwork showing that in March he filed a discrimination charge with the D.C. Office of Human Rights and underwent mediation in July with attorneys for ESquared.
When that failed, he filed suit with representation from A.J. Dhali, a D.C. attorney who said he has brought nearly 100 employment cases in his career and averages 15 to 18 annually.
Dhali argued the Trump Organization had control over the BLT employees’ employment because of the nature of the management contract between the hotel and ESquared. Whether other black employees were treated well or not was not the issue for the court to consider, he said.
“I don’t have to show that discrimination occurred against everybody. I just have to show that discrimination occurred against my clients,” Dhali said. The plaintiffs are seeking $14.5 million in damages.
Hill and Smith said they have both experienced discrimination in other restaurant jobs. Smith said guests at Wildfire once informed management they did not want a black or gay server. “Management asked them to leave,” he said. He said management at Clyde’s issued the same directive when necessary, but that at BLT, he said he had twice observed guests requesting service from nonblack staff who were allowed to stay. The suit cites other allegedly racist behavior by some guests, and it describes a working environment where, for instance, a staff memo posted in the kitchen details how the staff ought to handle $39 ostrich eggs for a dish that includes a photo of an ostrich chasing a black man.
The third plaintiff, Sturdivant, 34, a black woman who worked at BLT from May to June as a server, claimed she was complimented on her light skin after arriving.
“When I first came on board … the server manager said it’s good to see someone with Milano complexion here,” she said. Still, she said she was not given “moneymaking” night shifts.
Hill said he was fired after dropping a bloody mary on a baby in a stroller at a weekend brunch. But he said a white server who spilled a bottle of champagne down a bride’s dress and was not suspended or fired.
“I kept saying, why am I being terminated? Why can’t I be suspended or transferred? … My feeling was Mickael, who was right there, was letting me go from the company.” After being fired he said he was without work for six weeks and had his cable and electricity cut off in his apartment. Smith lost his car because he could not make the payments.
Smith said he took a second restaurant job to pay his bills and works about 60 hours a week.
“I would go to work crying and ask god why are you doing this? We were so comfortable and gave up everything to go to this place. And then to be treated like this.”
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz