When Martin Hopkins was fired from a Lancaster, Ohio, Verizon Wireless store in June, all the sales solutions specialist could think about were his six years of receiving the highest possible performance reviews in the midst of multiple racial incidents.

“There would be times when customers would come in and either ask for ‘the colored boy,’ or refuse to work with the ‘colored boy,’” says Hopkins, 34, who was the only non-White person working at the store. “Some referred to me with the n-word. Management would say that I had to take the customer and that I [couldn’t] say anything.”

The Columbus, Ohio, resident says he also experienced the racism of store managers. One used the n-word and another had a Confederate flag tattooed on his chest.

Hopkins’ firing from the nation’s largest wireless provider began with a May dispute with a supervisor.

“I was off the clock and headed home when a colleague asked me to help with a customer’s complaint,” he recounts. “I wanted to give [$240] back to the customer that was given misinformation. My supervisor agreed, but he was afraid of what the district manager would say because our store numbers looked bad at the time. I told him that he was being a coward. I said, ‘The company says they want us to take care of the customer, but they create conditions where it’s impossible.’”

Hopkins says that while he doesn’t remember the exact words of the exchange, he’s sure that both he and the manager used profanity. When the argument was over, the two men shook hands. But in June, only Hopkins was terminated. “The dispute with the manager was in the back of the store, yet I was put under investigation and let go based on third-party information. So why isn’t he fired? He’s White. I’m Black,” says the married father of a young daughter.

Hopkins adds that the manager actually defended him. “He and I had been co-workers and friends long before he became a manager, and we’re still friends. He’s actually on my side,” Hopkins says. “He told HR that we both exchanged words. Why was I the only one to face disciplinary action? I’ve been there longer. I have a better customer service record and sales record. It sounds like racism. And if it’s not, the district manager didn’t do a good job of making it seem like it’s not.”

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), harassment by both coworkers and customers in the form of “racial slurs, offensive or derogatory remarks about a person’s race or color, or the display of racially-offensive symbols” is illegal. Verizon Wireless’ code of conduct states that the company does not tolerate illegal discrimination or harassment.

Verizon did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.

Abusive Customers, Racist Managers and Union Busting

Hopkins believes racism played a role in his firing, but points to his efforts to start a union two years ago as a contributor. He was known for standing up for coworkers and customers whom he felt were being cheated by the company, and he complained about being passed over for advancement opportunities. So he talked to his colleagues at the store and contacted Communications Workers of America (CWA), a national union that represents some 30,000 Verizon Communications workers. Verizon, he says, sent corporate representatives to the store who raised the possibility of employees losing their jobs or the retail location closing. “The talks just kind of fizzled after that,” Hopkins says.

Hopkins contacted CWA again after he was fired and had filed an EEOC complaint. He soon learned that he’s among several workers nationwide who recently have filed either a lawsuit or an EEOC complaint about a racist workplace culture at the telecommunications conglomerate. In the last several months, current and former Verizon employees in Ohio, Texas, Georgia and New Jersey have taken action.

Latasha French of Irving, Texas, is one of those employees. She filed an EEOC complaint in August after working at a call center in Verizon’s corporate office for 17 years. It was the third time she filed a complaint with the agency since 2017. French, 40, has held positions ranging from sales representative to lead trainer to district manager. Most recently, before going on medical leave for lupus and fibromyalgia, she worked in business operations at the corporate office located just outside of Dallas.

With the support of a Black colleague, Jennifer Womack, she alleged in her latest complaint that Verizon enables a work environment where managers discriminate against a predominantly Black workforce and then retaliate against workers who make formal complaints.

And like Hopkins, mistreatment spurred French to begin trying to unionize her coworkers. “What made me start to organize a union is because they don’t treat people of color the same,” she says of her efforts that began in 2016.

Her coworker Womack has also been part of the union effort. Earlier this year, the 42-year-old single mother of two confronted Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg. “I was at the annual 2019 shareholders meeting in February, and he agreed to speak with me,” says the coordinator of business operations. “He agreed that employees should be able to unionize without retaliation.”

What followed, Womack says, were several union trainings in the home office that consisted of executives telling employees about why a union was not necessary.

Cartoonish Acts of Discrimination by Managers

The racism that both French and Womack describe is almost cartoonish. For instance, there was a White senior sales manager who repeatedly wore an Afro wig to taunt Black employees.

“The first time he put on an Afro wig, he was playing rap music, walking through the call center. He was holding up his first, pumping it in the air and spinning it in a circle,” says Womack.

“Nobody said anything.… Sometimes you don’t know how to respond immediately. At first, you think, If nobody else was offended, I’m not going to speak out. But I think it’s more about feeling intimidated, because he’s your boss’ boss. You really don’t know what to say.”

Eventually, French placed footage of his antics that other employees had recorded on LinkedIn. “They don’t care about social media posts on Facebook or Instagram, but they care about LinkedIn,” she says. “I posted the White guy wearing an Afro wig on LinkedIn and got over 10,000 views…. They weren’t ready for me. But I’m sick and frail now and I’m tired. It’s always their word against mine.”

According to Womack, the manager apologized. “His voice was cracking when he told us, he was just trying to have fun.”

Yet another senior manager took an electric scooter that the company provided for French and drove around the call center. “I’m going to take race out of that situation. [It’s] out of line for anybody to mock someone with a disability,” says Womack, who witnessed his behavior. “This was a senior manager, not some child. It’s a joyride for you, but you’re making a joke out of a colleague’s disability.”

In July, French pulled out her cell phone to record a Verizon Wireless cafeteria cashier accusing her and Womack of stealing guacamole. HR managers said they should not have responded to the cashier. “We were told by HR that we should have just walked away,” Womack recalls.

French, who hears rumors that she has been terminated, believes that the hostile environment has impacted her health. “I wouldn’t be on long-term disability if Verizon wasn’t bullying me and mistreating me,” she says. “They wrote me up twice for the first time in 17 years in less than one week. One was for not being able to come to work and the other was for trying to come to work in order to be in compliance with our medical vendor, due to my medical workplace modification arrangement.”

Even though French is on medical leave, people still reach out to her about racial issues at the company. “A few weeks ago, one of the White managers said ‘nigga please’ to a Black colleague. She should have been fired. This is very insensitive.”

A More Subtle Setup

Alberta Sanchez, an Atlanta Verizon Wireless employee, filed an EEOC complaint in September 2018. Before her position was eliminated, the Black 35-year-old was a floating manager in retail with 10 years of experience. She applied for a job in an Arizona office because she knew that her assistant district manager position would be eliminated in a year.

But Sanchez says that in the spring of 2018, she was passed over for a less experienced White woman: “She’s been in the company for three or four years and has no degree. She was my subordinate. Meanwhile, I’m going for my master’s degree. She’s Caucasian. They made her district manager, and they gave me a severance package. I complained to HR.”

Sanchez says that a Verizon Wireless executive told her that claiming racial discrimination would “make it hard for her because the company can select who they want for positions.”

Her ordeal has had a serious impact on her life. “My struggle with Verizon has affected me tremendously. Number one, I lost my health benefits, and I have three sons. The company was also paying for my education,” she says. “My life has completely changed because of racism, discrimination and retaliation at Verizon. The biggest thing is that I went from a salary of about $87,000 to zero. I had planned to retire from Verizon with stock.”

Since her position was eliminated, Sanchez says that she has applied for more than 200 positions within the company and has received no callbacks. “I even applied for a customer service position,” she says.

The Possible Power of Going Public

It’s important to note that it can be very difficult for workers to get relief from the EEOC. In most cases, accusers are required to prove that the discrimination was intentional and the burden of proof lies with the person filing. Working with the chronically under-resourced EEOC can be an arduous and slow process, especially for people who still have to work. And while EEOC mediation is free, it often leads to confidential settlements. This means that other workers won’t know the history of proven discrimination.

By going public with his story, Hopkins may have opened up a new path to recourse. In August, the Lancaster Eagle Gazette wrote a story about his firing. In response, longtime union supporter Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) released a statement. (From 1991 to the present, Brown has received $132,296 in campaign donations from CWA.)

Verizon must take all necessary steps to ensure workers are able to perform their jobs without being subjected to racism or discrimination, and reinstate any workers who were fired as a result of discrimination,” said Brown. “Dr. King preached the deep connection between civil rights and workers’ rights. The two are inextricably linked and fighting for workers must also mean fighting the racism—both blatant and institutional—that makes it even harder for people of color to get ahead, no matter how hard they work.”

At the end of September, about 50 people gathered outside Hopkins’ store and demanded that he get his job back. Supporters included union workers from other areas, representatives from CWA, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, the A. Phillip Randolph Institute and the AFL-CIO.

“Martin was one of the top sellers in the store. We are demanding that he get his job back,” says Linda Hinton, vice president of the CWA District 4, which represents workers in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. “Verizon also needs to do sensitivity and diversity training, not just with the managers but other employees as well. It needs to be real though.”

In an early October interview, Brown told Colorlines: “Verizon is a consumer company that needs to go beyond just dotting Is and crossing Ts and doing whatever minimal state and local laws require for fair treatment because they are a retail operation and a respected company. But so far, in this case with Martin Hopkins, it looks like they failed that test.”

On October 10, Hopkins hit the road and joined about 40 supporters outside a New York City Verizon Wireless store to deliver a petition that surpassed 15,0000 signatures. The demonstrators—including Jennifer Womack who traveled from Texas—called on the New York-headquartered company to address allegations of racial discrimination from managers and customers in different regions of the country.

New York State Senator Julia Salazar was there in support. “We’re here today to stand in solidarity with Martin, Jennifer and Verizon Wireless employees who have suffered racial discrimination at the company,” the Democrat said. “The experiences of workers across the country clearly show racism in the workplace is not just a local issue for Verizon Wireless, and it’s deeply concerning that the company has done nothing to address the unacceptable practices that have come to light or taken steps to prevent future incidents.”

Hopkins described the rally at 100 Wall Street as “a pure display of solidarity and brotherhood” and added, “This rally wasn’t just about racial discrimination. We want Verizon to know that we see their greed and fraudulent activities that they allow to continue because it helps their bottom line.”

Despite what he has experienced, Hopkins wants his job back. He is also seeking other employment opportunities, but says he’s not getting callbacks because he has a firing on his record and because he’s in the news. For Hopkins, it’s a question of legacy. “I can’t tell this story to my 2-year-old daughter one day and my answer to how things ended was that I just found another job and moved on.”

Marcia Pledger is a freelance business journalist, author and content creator.