Ugly on the Inside

Behind the cosmetics counter, things weren't quite as lovely

From the outside looking in, it's all about beauty at the Dillard's Estée Lauder cosmetics counter.

Advisors with carefully made-up faces, coiffed hair and painted smiles lure customers with vials that promise to make women look and feel better about themselves.

From behind the counter, it's a different story.

One of Estée Lauder's own employees says she left the cosmetics counter humiliated and distressed.

Ora Berkley, a former Estée Lauder beauty advisor at the St. Louis Galleria Dillard's, alleges she was the target of racial slurs and hostility from co-workers that culminated in her dismissal. She's since filed a race-discrimination lawsuit in federal court against the cosmetics giant, Dillard's and her former manager.

According to Berkley's suit, the cosmetics counter was a place where a co-worker could nickname her "gorilla" without being disciplined. And it was a place where the Estée Lauder manager allegedly said that "all black people steal."

Berkley, 30, was hired by Dillard's in October 2000, but her easy smile and outgoing manner caught the attention of a cosmetics-department manager, so she was offered a job at the Este Lauder counter. She started at the beginning of the Christmas crush, November 26, 2000. As a beauty advisor, Berkley worked for both Dillard's and Este Lauder. She says that she was the only African-American advisor employed by Este Lauder at that location.

Berkley says that, initially, she loved the job: "I love doing makeup, I love making people happy, and they have good products."

Her enthusiasm translated into sales. And soon after the rookie started pushing jars of skin-care creams, fragrant sprays and powder, she rose to the head of the pack in sales. That's a good thing for a worker whose pay is based on commission but not so good when it's the new kid making all the sales.

"I was way over my sales-per-hour [quota]," Berkley says.

But then, Berkley says, she saw, written on a sheet identifying her as the top saleswoman, the statement "What's wrong with this picture?"

In an interview with the Riverfront Times, Berkley says that her manager, Kim Georgie, told her that her co-workers were angry with her because of her sales success. Berkley says Georgie told her to "lay back" when customers approached the counter to give other advisors a shot at making a sale. But even as she was being told to back off on her sales, Berkley says, Georgie was making derogatory comments about her to white co-workers.

And that was just the beginning, Berkley says.

At a meeting about high inventory losses, Berkley says, she recalls telling Georgie and her co-workers that someday, when she ran a big company, she'd make sure the inventory was tracked better.

Berkley says Georgie responded by saying there was no way Berkley would be able to keep big inventory losses down. The reason? She'd be too busy defending herself against discrimination cases because, Berkley alleges in her lawsuit, Georgie told her, "All black people steal."

Berkley says that the statement didn't sit well with her:

"I will not tolerate anyone saying my people steal."

She says she started complaining to management and enlisted a few sympathetic co-workers to document racist and disparaging remarks made at the beauty counter by Georgie and her advisors.

Up in the executive offices, on the fourth floor, Berkley says, the Dillard's merchandising manager and store manager started looking into her complaints and interviewing co-workers, but nothing changed, Berkley says.

She continued to work at the counter, still reporting to Georgie and still dealing with co-workers who, Berkley says, were hostile to her. And after Georgie's alleged comment about how "all black people steal," Berkley says, the floodgates holding back disparaging or racist remarks were opened and the "other girls started treating me like crap."

For example, Berkley says, when she picked up the phone and the call was for one of her co-workers, the co-worker would spray Windex on the receiver before using it. According to the suit, another woman nicknamed her "gorilla."

Berkley says she continued documenting and complaining. But, she says, Georgie told her co-workers that she wasn't worried about Berkley's complaints.

So Berkley took matters into her own hands. In May 2001, about six months after starting at the cosmetics counter, she filed a discrimination charge with the Missouri Human Rights Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. By failing to stop the racial slurs and hostile treatment, Berkley claimed in her lawsuit, Dillard's and Estée Lauder were discriminating against her.

When Dillard's received the complaint, Berkley says, the store manager told her to "make this a scar and leave it alone."

Instead, Berkley hired lawyers. Debbie Champion and Wynde Wright took Berkley's case and asked the EEOC for a right-to-sue letter, which would allow her to file a lawsuit in federal court. On February 19, Berkley filed suit in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri, against Dillard's, Estée Lauder and Georgie. The lawsuit states a claim of racial discrimination against Dillard's and Estée Lauder. The suit also contains claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress against Georgie, Dillard's and Estée Lauder.

Three weeks after the suit was filed, Berkley was fired.

Georgie declines to comment on Berkley's account of events: "I'm going to have to tell you 'no comment,' as I'm sure you were expecting." Spokespersons for Dillard's and Estée Lauder have not returned several phone messages.

In court pleadings, Dillard's and Georgie have denied the accusations. Estée Lauder hasn't filed an answer to the lawsuit.

The case hasn't been set for trial yet, but Berkley says she isn't backing away:

"I worked my butt off. Just because I'm black, you can't run over me."

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