PHILADELPHIA (CN) — A former Old Navy sales associate sued for punitive damages Thursday, saying the retail giant brought in white temporary workers when a Netflix makeover series brought a film crew to her store in 2019.
"Queer Eye" filmed its fifth season in Philadelphia, and plaintiff Ebony Clarke says she had been working at an Old Navy in Center City for over a year when word spread that her store, and potentially its employees, would be featured in an episode.
Represented by Gerald Baldino of Sacchetta & Baldino in Media, Pennsylvania, Clarke says she normally works the evening shift — 4 to 10 p.m. — but her shift on film day, Aug. 21, 2019, began at at 6 a.m. and ran into the afternoon.
Though initially excited about the chance to appear on camera, Clarke quickly saw her hopes dashed as Old Navy officials sent her and fellow employees of the Center City location "to the back of the store." All of these employees relegated to back-of-store cleaning duties, according to the complaint, "were either African American/Black or Cambodian."
While Clarke was working in the fitting room later that day — still "far away from the film set" — she says she heard one white district manager tell another "that some certain employees at the store were 'too urban.'"
The filming caused a media firestorm, Clarke notes, when her Cambodian co-worker posted on Facebook about the segregation at play.
"My job is nothing but people of color," Monae Alvarado had posted in August 2019. "Most of us did an overnight to help make the store look beautiful. Today they brought all these workers from other store around the region (West Chester, Mount Pocono, and Deptford NJ) and they were all white. They had us standing in the back not to be seen while the other workers from another store get to work on our floor like it's their store. The shade I tell you."
After first forcing her to clean on the day of filming — a task outside of her typical job duties as a sales associate — Clarke says Old Navy added insult to injury by calling her a liar when she spoke up about the discrimination suffered by herself and the other Center City employees.
“Defendants at all times relevant hereto intended to segregate employees of color at the Center City Old Navy Store from the temporary white employees, in an attempt to whitewash the appearance of their store when watched by Queer Eye viewers,” the complaint says.
She says Old Navy even forced minority employees to use the stairs on film day, while white employees were permitted to use the elevator. In the ensuing weeks, according to the complaint, before the discrimination led her to take a leave of absence, Clarke says she was given less favorable work assignments, such as working the fitting rooms rather than the register.
An Old Navy representative declined to comment on Clarke's suit Thursday, citing company policy regarding pending litigation. Back in 2019, representatives for the store told Philadelphia Magazine touted its use of temporary workers as a show of diversity.
“We were proud to work with the 'Queer Eye' show to film at our store in Philadelphia and to feature our local store manager on camera," the statement continued. "We also worked with additional employees in the area to help ensure the store ran seamlessly for customers, as the location was open for business during filming, and we expect they may appear in background shots.
"These individuals are reflective of our diverse employee population. We would never select employees to participate — or not — based on race. That is completely inaccurate and against the values we stand for as a company.”
A spokesperson for Netflix told Newsweek in 2019 that the streaming platform’s hosts, producers, and crew had not been involved in the retail chain's staffing choices.
"While filming, production featured one female employee, an African American manager, who completed an on-camera styling consultation and also served as a point of contact for our crew," Netflix said at the time.
Tan France, the "Queer Eye" fashion expert involved in the Old Navy, meanwhile issued his own statement. “I don’t know what happened behind the scenes, or overnight, but what I can tell you is that there [is] no way I would ever have allowed production to move POC [people of color] to the back," France, who is of Muslim Pakistani descent, wrote in a 2019 Facebook post.
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