The Not-So-Woke Corporations

In its never-ending effort to use culture war issues for political advantage, the American Right has a new favorite target: woke corporations. This is the derogatory term conservatives have seized on to attack those portions of Big Business that have decided to show concern about issues such as racism, sexism and inequality.

This is one of those debates with a lot of empty posturing on both sides. Corporatist Republicans are pretending to be fire-breathing critics of the Fortune 500. Chief executives who are still preoccupied with profit above all are pretending to be social reformers.

Since behavior counts more than public statements, let’s look at the track record of large corporations when it comes to the issue at the center of wokeness: their treatment of women and people of color. One has only to look at some of the cases in the news over the past couple of months to get an indication of what really goes on in the business world.

Recently, for example, Google agreed to pay $118 million to settle litigation that accused it of systematically underpaying its female employees. The lawsuit, originally filed in 2017, alleged that the company put women into lower career tracks than their male counterparts, resulting in lower salaries and bonuses. Once a judge granted class action status to the plaintiffs—something that some similar suits against tech companies failed to achieve–it was almost inevitable that the company was going to have to make a substantial payout.

This case is not the only instance of discrimination allegations against Google. In 2021 a branch of the U.S. Labor Department found evidence of compensation and hiring discrimination against female and Asian applicants for engineering positions. Google had to pay out $2.5 million in back pay and set aside $1.25 million for pay-equity adjustments. The company is also defending itself against a lawsuit accusing it of racial discrimination.

In another major discrimination case, Sterling Jewelers recently agreed to pay out $175 million to settle a long-running lawsuit accusing it of underpaying and underpromoting tens of thousands of women at its stores. There were also accusations of sexual harassment at the company.

Not long ago, a federal court approved a consent decree entered into by the gaming giant Activision Blizzard to resolve an action brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in response to reports of sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination and related retaliation at the company. The company is paying out $18 million.

Activision is being acquired by Microsoft, which has had its own discrimination issues. In May, the same Labor Department agency that fined Google required Microsoft subsidiary LinkedIn to provide $1.8 million in back pay and interest to a group of nearly 700 female employees said to have been the victims of gender-based pay discrimination.

As I documented in a 2019 report, almost all large corporations have been caught up in discrimination cases. While many of the cases are resolved through confidential settlements, I was able to show that 189 Fortune 500 companies had paid a total of $1.9 billion to resolve private litigation or cases brought by federal government agencies since 2000.

There is no indication that the policies that gave rise to those cases have come to an end. In fact, the main problem with woke corporations seems to be that they are not woke enough.

Toxic Corporate Culture

Most large companies like to brag about their corporate culture, seeing it as a key factor in their success. Yet when an independent assessment is done, the results may tell a very different story.

The latest example of this is taking place at the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto Group, which has operations in more than 30 countries. A report commissioned by the company from an outside expert paints a dismal picture of workplace culture in its mines and other facilities around the world.

Elizabeth Broderick, Australia’s former sex discrimination commissioner, conducted an investigation that included a survey completed by more than 10,000 employees as well as more than 100 group listening sessions, 85 confidential individual interviews, and 138 written submissions.

Based on all this, Broderick found that Rio Tinto’s workplace culture is marked by widespread bullying, sexual harassment and racism. She found that the harmful behavior was not limited to the male-dominated manual workforce. Managers, including those at senior levels, often tolerated the behavior or even demonstrated it themselves.

Among the most disturbing findings was that 21 female employees reported experiencing actual or attempted rape or sexual assault during the past five years.

High percentages of the employees had not reported the various forms of mistreatment, believing either that their concerns would not be taken seriously or that they might face repercussions for filing a complaint. Broderick writes: “Employees believe that there is little accountability, particularly for senior leaders and so called ‘high performers’, who are perceived to avoid significant consequences for harmful behaviour.”

In a company press release about the report, CEO Jakob Stausholm stated: “I feel shame and enormous regret to have learned the extent to which bullying, sexual harassment and racism are happening at Rio Tinto.” The implication was that the revelations came as a surprise, thus making management somewhat less culpable.

Yet Stausholm and other senior executives must have been well aware of the problems for some time. The Broderick report was commissioned in response to previous revelations, such as those that emerged from a West Australia parliamentary inquiry last year.

Moreover, Rio Tinto does not exactly have an unblemished track record when it comes to the treatment of employees or the communities in which it operates. Mining industry critic Danny Kennedy once called the company—a frequent target of criticism over its policies relating to the environment, labor relations, and human rights—“a poster child for corporate malfeasance.”

In the area of human rights, Rio Tinto’s sins include having operated a uranium mine in Namibia, in violation of United Nations decrees, during a period in which apartheid-era South Africa still occupied the country. It has also been accused of abuses at mines in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. A lawsuit was filed against Rio Tinto in the United States under the Alien Tort Claims Act, alleging that the company colluded with local authorities in Papua New Guinea to violently suppress protests. It was ultimately dismissed.

In 2020 Rio Tinto’s then-CEO Jean-Sebastian Jacques was pushed out after shareholders demanded he face more serious consequences in the wake of a decision to destroy ancient rock shelters in Australia’s Juukan Gorge that were sacred to two Aboriginal groups.

The question now surrounding Rio Tinto is whether it will see the Broderick report as more than a public relations problem to overcome and make meaningful changes throughout its operations, including the policies adopted by those at the top.

Scrutinizing Microsoft

Press accounts of Microsoft’s $70 billion offer for Activision Blizzard make frequent references to the legal problems it would inherit from the gaming company, which is embroiled in lawsuits and regulatory actions relating to sexual harassment and discrimination.

Those problems are real, but it is misleading to suggest that Microsoft is a boy scout of a company with no legal difficulties of its own. While none of the cases involve the same allegations surrounding Activision, Microsoft has, as shown in Violation Tracker, racked up more than $300 million in regulatory fines and class action lawsuit settlements over the past two decades.

The largest cases involve anti-competitive practices—the same issue that made Microsoft notorious in the 1990s. In 2009 the company paid $100 million to resolve a case brought by the Mississippi Attorney General, and in 2012 it paid $70 million to settle a similar suit brought by a group of cities and counties in California.

Microsoft has also faced accusations of foreign bribery. In 2019 one of its subsidiaries paid $8.7 million to resolve criminal charges linked to alleged violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in Hungary. The parent company paid $16 million in a related civil matter brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

LinkedIn, a Microsoft subsidiary, paid $13 million in 2016 to settle a class action lawsuit alleging that it sent unsolicited messages to users.

Microsoft has had its own problems with employment discrimination. In 2020 it agreed to provide $3 million in back pay and interest to employees to resolve federal allegations that hiring patterns at several of its locations showed a statistical bias against Asian applicants.

Finally, Microsoft shares with Activision a track record of wage and hour violations. In 2014 LinkedIn was compelled to pay over $5 million in back pay and liquidated damages to a group of 359 current and former employees who had not received proper overtime pay.

In 2000 Microsoft paid $97 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that it misclassified several thousand people as independent contractors to avoid paying them overtime pay and employee benefits. This was the same issue in a lawsuit brought against Activision in California on behalf of senior artists. In 2017 the gaming company paid $1.5 million to settle the suit.

Despite its transgressions over the past two decades, Microsoft has developed a more benign image than not only Activision but also the other giants of the tech industry, including Amazon, Google and Facebook.

An assessment in the Washington Post attributes this not to changes in Microsoft’s practices but to its public relations and lobbying, especially in relation to Washington lawmakers, many of whom, the Post states, treat the company “like a trusted ally in their efforts to rein in other large tech companies.”

The Activision deal, which raises some significant antitrust issues given Microsoft’s sizeable Xbox business, will be a test of the strength of its good will among policymakers. This will be a good opportunity for those calling for stronger enforcement to show they are serious.

States vs. Big Business

Twenty twenty-one is turning out to be a banner year for state government prosecution of corporate crime and misconduct. The biggest events are, of course, the settlements with pharmaceutical companies Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson along with the three big drug distributors—Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and McKesson—for their role in creating and prolonging the opioid epidemic.

While some argue that the amounts are not sufficient, those cases will result in billions of dollars in payments to state governments from the corporations and the family, the Sacklers, who controlled the now bankrupt Purdue and grew enormously wealthy from its operations.

In all, the states will rack up more than $30 billion in 2021, which would be the largest amount since 2008, when the states received about $53 billion in payments, largely as the result of a series of billion-dollar-plus settlements with the likes of Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs to resolve allegations that the Wall Street banks misled investors in the marketing of auction-rate securities.

This year’s total is not entirely the result of the opioid litigation. There have also been numerous other cases resolved by state attorneys general that may not involve billions but are still quite significant. Here are some examples.

In July, the New York AG announced that TIAA-CREF, a subsidiary of retirement-services giant TIAA, had agreed to pay $97 million to resolve allegations that it fraudulently misled tens of thousands of customers into moving their retirement investments into higher-fee accounts offered by the company.

Also in July, the Oregon AG announced that L Brands, the owner of Victoria’s Secret and other retail chains, had agreed to commit $90 million of company funds to protect employees from sexual harassment and discrimination and require accountability from executives when misconduct occurs. The settlement came in the wake of allegations by the Oregon Public Employees Retirement Fund and other shareholders that the company’s board of directors failed to investigate former CEO and Chairman Emeritus Leslie Wexner’s close personal ties with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, and ignored a widespread and pervasive culture of sexual harassment at the company.

In June, the Ohio AG announced that Centene Corp. agreed to pay $88 million to resolve allegations of overcharging Medicaid by charging more than the capped industry-standard prices for drugs while acting as a pharmacy benefit manager. Centene paid $55 million to settle a similar case with the state of Mississippi, while Bristol Myers Squibb paid $75 million in an overcharging settlement with a group of states.

Also in June, the North Carolina AG announced that JUUL Labs would pay $40 million and change its practices to resolve allegations that it was responsible for misleading teenagers into becoming addicted to nicotine-based vaping products.  

Last month, the Pennsylvania AG announced that Glenn O. Hawbaker, Inc. would pay more than $20 million to resolve criminal charges that it misdirected retirement contributions meant specifically for employees working on prevailing-wage projects into a company-wide plan that covered executives and owners of the firm.

Also in August, the Georgia AG announced that Turtle Creek Assets, Ltd would pay more than $19 million to resolve allegations that the company committed multiple violations of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act.

What this sampling of cases shows is that amid all the controversy over their policies on issues such as voting rights and abortion, many states of varying ideological orientation continue to carry out their responsibility to protect citizens from irresponsible corporate behavior.

Note: These cases will appear in an update of Violation Tracker that will be posted later this month.

Is Big Business an Agent of Social Change?

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020, Corporate America pledged to spend billions of dollars to address systemic racism. A new analysis by the Washington Post raises questions both about those commitments and the entire idea of relying on big business to address social problems.

Surveying the 50 U.S. largest companies (based on stock market valuation), the Post found that 44 of them pledged a total of $4.2 billion in donations and committed another $45.2 billion in loans, investments and other initiatives. More than one year later, the companies reported disbursing only $1.7 billion.

The slow movement of the funds should not be taken as an indication that the commitments were a burden on the firms. As the Post points out, the $4 billion cash portion represented less than one percent of the aggregate annual profits of the 50 companies.

Much of the $45 billion in other commitments, 90 percent of which came from Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, represented loans and investments on which the companies would make a profit. Moreover, providing home mortgages and other financial services in Black and Latino neighborhoods is something the banks were already supposed to be doing under federal laws such as the Community Reinvestment Act.

All this goes to show that the companies were not sacrificing very much in their racial justice commitments. Yet many of them have still dawdled in writing the checks. For example, the Post notes that Chuck Robbins, the CEO of Cisco Systems, tweeted in June 2020 that his company would be contributing $5 million to a handful of groups such as Black Lives Matter. The newspaper found that Black Lives Matter has not yet received any money.

It remains unclear whether Cisco and the other companies ever intend to make good on their pledges, even though they have already reaped the public relations benefits from the commitments.

Apart from the matter of reliability is the question of whether it makes sense to call on large corporations to help deal with matters such as systemic racism. Typically, this is framed as a debate between those who see big business as a potential force for positive change and those who argue that corporations should focus solely on creating value for shareholders.

There are problems with both those positions. The notion that the business of business is solely to generate profits, long popularized by the rightwing economist Milton Friedman, is not only amoral but simplistic. Corporations may find it beneficial to spend money on things such as charitable contributions or lobbying even if the immediate effect is to reduce profits a bit. Those expenses may very well lead to higher profits in the longer term by generating good will or changing public policy.

Some corporations, in fact, may seek to project an image of social or environmental responsibility as part of their brand—think Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, etc. When they make contributions to progressive causes, they are really engaged in nothing more than marketing.

Yet perhaps the biggest misconception in most discussions of the role of corporations is the assumption that big business is somehow part of the antidote to social and environmental ills. The truth is often that companies are a cause of those ills.

For example, when it comes to systemic racism, large corporations are hardly innocent bystanders. Many of them have decades-long track records of racial discrimination in the treatment of both employees and customers.

Many of these cases are documented in Violation Tracker. The database contains more than 3,000 entries on employment discrimination (of all kinds) with total penalties of more than $4 billion. These include actions by agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as well as class action lawsuits. Among the latter are multi-million-dollar settlements paid by major companies such as Coca-Cola, Federal Express, and Eastman Kodak.

Violation Tracker also has more than 200 cases in which companies were accused of bias in their dealings with customers—such as charging African-American borrowers higher interest rates than their white counterparts. These cases have resulted in more than $1 billion in fines and settlements. Among the companies involved in these matters have been MetLife, JPMorgan Chase, and Toyota.

All of this is to say that many corporations have much work to do to eliminate systemic racism under their own roof before being called on to help address the problem at a national level. When it comes to social change, big business often remains part of the problem rather than the solution.

The Legacy of Financial Services Racism

At a time when numerous large corporations have been expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement, it is important not to forget that big business has played a role in perpetuating systemic racism and widening the racial wealth gap.

This reality became clearer for me while I was collecting a new category of data for Violation Tracker: class-action lawsuits brought against financial services corporations engaging in discriminatory practices against their customers.

I was able to identify a total of 30 cases in which banks, insurance carriers and consumer finance companies paid a total of $400 million in settlements over the past two decades to resolve allegations that they charged higher premiums or interest rates to minority customers.

These private lawsuits are in addition to dozens of similar cases already in Violation Tracker that were brought by the Justice Department and state attorneys general during the same time period.

A wave of this litigation came in the early 2000s, when all the major automobile financing companies—including subsidiaries of carmakers such as Ford, General Motors, Toyota, and Honda—agreed to settle allegations that they allowed dealers to charge inflated interest rates on loans to African-American customers.

Subsequent years saw settlements with major insurance companies such as John Hancock, which in 2009 agreed to pay $24 million to resolve allegations that for decades it sold only inferior policies to Black customers. As recently as 2018, Travelers Indemnity settled a suit alleging it engaged in racial discrimination by refusing to write commercial policies for landlords who rented to tenants using Section 8 vouchers.

Over the past decade, major banks have faced private discrimination lawsuits concerning their mortgage lending practices. The defendant in four of these cases was Wells Fargo, which has paid more than $28 million in settlements. These include a case resolved just last year in which the City of Philadelphia had sued the bank on behalf of minority residents it allegedly steered to mortgages that were riskier and more expensive than those offered to similarly situated white homebuyers.

Discriminatory practices such as redlining began many decades ago. What the consumer civil rights lawsuits now documented in Violation Tracker show is that these injustices are not entirely a phenomenon of the distant past. The financial services sector has more work to do to ensure that their customers of color are treated equitably.

Note: with the addition of these lawsuits and other recent cases, Violation Tracker now contains a total of 438,000 entries involving $633 billion in fines and settlements.

The Corporate Marauder Undermining the Postal Service

Donald Trump got elected in part by selling the idea that his business experience would enable him to do a great job of running the government. We see how that turned out. And now we have another veteran of the private sector wreaking havoc on the United States Postal Service.

Louis DeJoy was named postmaster general after spending four decades in the trucking and logistics business, becoming wealthy enough in the process to join the ranks of Republican megadonors. He made his name and his fortune through the creation of a company called New Breed Logistics, which grew to prominence by securing contracts with large corporations such as Boeing as well as the Postal Service.

In 2014 he sold New Breed to the Fortune 500 company XPO Logistics, staying on to run the New Breed operation and serve as a director of XPO until 2018. If we want to get a sense of the management approach DeJoy is bringing to the USPS, we can look at the track record of New Breed and XPO.

As shown in Violation Tracker, XPO and its subsidiaries have racked up a total of $65 million in fines and settlements in more than 70 misconduct cases over the past two decades. Nearly two-thirds of that total comes from wage theft. Last year XPO paid $16.5 million to resolve allegations that for years it misclassified drivers as independent contractors to deny them overtime pay and paid breaks.

This year XPO paid another $5.5 million for wage and hour violations relating to workers at its Last Mile operations. Altogether, XPO and its subsidiaries have had to pay out some $40 million in wage theft lawsuits. Another $3.5 million settlement in a misclassification case brought against an XPO unit and the retailer Macy’s is awaiting final court approval.

Another problem area for XPO is employment discrimination. Two of the cases in this category relate to New Breed Logistics. In 2015 a federal appeals court upheld a $1.5 million jury verdict in a sexual harassment and retaliation case originally filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2010. Also in 2015, New Breed had to pay $90,000 to resolve allegations by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs that it engaged in discriminatory practices at a facility in Texas.

XPO has also been called out for workplace safety and health deficiencies. It has been cited more than 20 times by OSHA for serious, willful and repeated violations.

Along with the mistreatment of workers, the rap sheet of XPO and its businesses includes allegations of cheating the federal government. This comes by way of Emery Worldwide, an air freight company that became part of Con-Way Inc., which was purchased by XPO in 2015.

In 2006 Emery paid $10 million to settle a False Claims Act lawsuit brought by the Justice Department concerning the submission of inflated bills to the Postal Service for the handling of Priority Mail at mail processing facilities during a multi-year contract.

Leave it to the Trump Administration to choose someone to head the Postal Service who was associated with a company linked to fraud committed against that same agency.

XPO continues to do business with the Postal Service, and DeJoy has continued to receive income from the company through leasing agreements at buildings he owns. Even if XPO had a spotless record, DeJoy’s ongoing dealings with it create a glaring conflict of interest.

DeJoy claims to be retreating, at least through the election, from the measures that threatened to create chaos for mail-in ballots.  Nonetheless, his corporate marauder’s approach to the management of the Postal Service still poses a grave threat to the future of a vital American institution.

The 2019 Corporate Rap Sheet

While the news has lately focused on political high crimes and misdemeanors, 2019 has also seen plenty of corporate crimes and violations. Continuing the pattern of the past few years, diligent prosecutors and career agency officials have pursued their mission to combat business misconduct even as the Trump Administration tries to erode the regulatory system. The following is a selection of significant cases resolved during the year.

Online Privacy Violations: Facebook agreed to pay $5 billion and to modify its corporate governance to resolve a Federal Trade Commission case alleging that the company violated a 2012 FTC order by deceiving users about their ability to control the privacy of their personal information.

Opioid Marketing Abuses: The British company Reckitt Benckiser agreed to pay more than $1.3 billion to resolve criminal and civil allegations that it engaged in an illicit scheme to increase prescriptions for an opioid addiction treatment called Suboxone.

Wildfire Complicity: Pacific Gas & Electric reached a $1 billion settlement with a group of localities in California to resolve a lawsuit concerning the company’s responsibility for damage caused by major wildfires in 2015, 2017 and 2018. PG&E later agreed to a related $1.7 billion settlement with state regulators.

International Economic Sanctions: Britain’s Standard Chartered Bank agreed to pay a total of more than $900 million in settlements with the U.S. Justice Department, the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, the New York Department of Financial Services and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office concerning alleged violations of economic sanctions in its dealing with Iranian entities.

Emissions Cheating: Fiat Chrysler agreed to pay a civil penalty of $305 million and spend around $200 million more on recalls and repairs to resolve allegations that it installed software on more than 100,000 vehicles to facilitate cheating on emissions control testing.

Foreign Bribery: Walmart agreed to pay $137 million to the Justice Department and $144 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission to resolve alleged violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in Brazil, China, India and Mexico.

False Claims Act Violations: Walgreens agreed to pay the federal government and the states $269 million to resolve allegations that it improperly billed Medicare, Medicaid, and other federal healthcare programs for hundreds of thousands of insulin pens it knowingly dispensed to program beneficiaries who did not need them.

Price-fixing: StarKist Co. was sentenced to pay a criminal fine of $100 million, the statutory maximum, for its role in a conspiracy to fix prices for canned tuna sold in the United States.  StarKist was also sentenced to a 13-month term of probation.

Employment Discrimination: Google’s parent company Alphabet agreed to pay $11 million to settle a class action lawsuit alleging that it engaged in age discrimination in its hiring process.

Investor Protection Violation: State Street Bank and Trust Company agreed to pay over $88 million to the SEC to settle allegations of overcharging mutual funds and other registered investment company clients for expenses related to the firm’s custody of client assets.

Illegal Kickbacks: Mallinckrodt agreed to pay $15 million to resolve claims that Questcor Pharmaceuticals, which it acquired, paid illegal kickbacks to doctors, in the form of lavish dinners and entertainment, to induce them to write prescriptions for the company’s drug H.P. Acthar Gel.

Worker Misclassification: Uber Technologies agreed to pay $20 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that it misclassified drivers as independent contractors to avoid complying with labor protection standards.

Accounting Fraud: KPMG agreed to pay $50 million to the SEC to settle allegations of altering past audit work after receiving stolen information about inspections of the firm that would be conducted by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board.  The SEC also found that numerous KPMG audit professionals cheated on internal training exams by improperly sharing answers and manipulating test results.

Trade Violations: A subsidiary of Univar Inc. agreed to pay the United States $62 million to settle allegations that it violated customs regulations when it imported saccharin that was manufactured in China and transshipped through Taiwan to evade a 329 percent antidumping duty.

Consumer Protection Violation: As part of the settlement of allegations that it engaged in unfair and deceptive practices in connection with a 2017 data breach, Equifax agreed to provide $425 million in consumer relief and pay a $100 million civil penalty to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It also paid $175 million to the states.

Ocean Dumping: Princess Cruise Lines and its parent Carnival Cruises were ordered to pay a $20 million criminal penalty after admitting to violating the terms of their probation in connection with a previous case relating to illegal ocean dumping of oil-contaminated waste.

Additional details on these cases can be found in Violation Tracker, which now contains 397,000 civil and criminal cases with total penalties of $604 billion.

Note: I have just completed a thorough update of the Dirt Diggers Digest Guide to Strategic Corporate Research. I’ve added dozens of new sources (and fixed many outdated links) in all four of the guide’s parts: Key Sources of Company Information; Exploring A Company’s Essential Relationships; Analyzing A Company’s Accountability Record; and Industry-Specific Sources.

Battles Over Background Reports

Credit: NELP

The Ban the Box movement seeks to remove barriers to employment for job applicants with a prior arrest or conviction. The goal is to have all candidates considered on their merits and to give those with criminal records a chance to explain their specific circumstances.

Yet there is another problem relating to employer use of criminal records and other personal background information: sometimes the information they obtain on a candidate is inaccurate or may refer to someone else with a similar name.

Employers who use such faulty information in their hiring decisions can find themselves the target of a class action lawsuit. These suits are based on provisions of the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which requires employers to get written consent from a job candidate before obtaining background-check reports containing criminal records as well as credit history and other personal information. Before making an adverse decision based on data in the report, the employer must give the applicant a copy and allow time for the person to challenge any inaccuracies in the document.

You will not be surprised to learn that employers often break these rules.

I’ve been compiling information on employment-related FCRA lawsuits as part of the latest expansion of Violation Tracker. I found that over the past decade employers have paid out $174 million to resolve such cases, while companies providing those reports have paid out another $152 million when they have been sued directly.

The dollar totals derive from 146 successful class actions brought against a variety of employers in sectors such as retail, banking, logistics, security services and private prisons.

Since 2011 more than 40 employers have paid out FCRA employment settlements of $1 million or more. In one of the largest cases, Wells Fargo paid $12 million in 2016 to thousands of applicants whose FCRA rights were allegedly violated. Other large payouts by well-known companies include: Target ($8.5 million), Uber Technologies ($7.5 million), Amazon.com ($5 million), Home Depot ($3 million), and Domino’s Pizza ($2.5 million).

More cases are pending. A $2.3 million settlement involving Delta Air Lines is awaiting final court approval. In January a federal judge in California certified a class of five million Walmart job applicants.

Suits have also been brought against staffing services such as Aerotek (which paid a $15 million settlement) and temp agencies such as Kelly Services ($6.7 million).

Providers of background-check reports also have obligations under the FCRA, including a duty to employ reasonable procedures to ensure the accuracy of the information they report. The Violation Tracker compilation includes 30 provider class actions with settlements amounts as high as $28 million.

The FCRA cases are the fourth compilation of employment-related class actions to be added to Violation Tracker, following ones covering wage theft, workplace discrimination, and retirement-plan abuses. With the addition of the FCRA cases and the updating of data from more than 40 federal regulatory agencies and the Justice Department, Violation Tracker now contains 369,000 civil and criminal entries with total penalties of $470 billion.

Mistreating Customers and Workers

For a long time, the corporation that stood out as America’s worst employer was Walmart, given its reputation for shortchanging workers on pay, engaging in discriminatory practices and ruthlessly fighting union organizing drives. Today, Amazon.com seems to be trying to take over that title, at least for its blue-collar workforce.

Yet when we look at the corporations that have been paying the most penalties for workplace abuses, there is another contender for the top, or really the bottom, spot among U.S. employers: Bank of America. In Big Business Bias, a report just published by the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First, we found that BofA has paid more in damages, settlements and fines in workplace discrimination and harassment cases than any other large for-profit corporation.

In Grand Theft Paycheck, a report we published last year on wage theft, BofA ranked third (after Walmart and FedEx) in total penalties paid in private wage and hour lawsuits and cases brought by the U.S. Labor Department.

BofA’s position in these tallies is to a significant extent the result of cases brought against its subsidiary Merrill Lynch, which the federal government pressured it to acquire during the financial meltdown in 2008. Merrill accounts for 95 percent of the $210 million in penalties BofA has paid in discrimination cases and more than one-quarter of the $381 million paid in wage theft cases.

Merrill brought with it problems beyond questionable personnel practices. In 1998 it had to pay $400 million to settle charges that it helped push Orange County, California into bankruptcy with reckless investment advice. In 2002 it agreed to pay $100 million to settle charges that its analysts skewed their advice to promote the firm’s investment banking business (plus another $100 million the following year). In 2003 it paid $80 million to settle allegations relating to dealings with Enron.

This track record was similar to that of BofA before the merger. For example, in 1998 the bank paid $187 million to settle allegations that in its role as bond trustee for the California state government it misappropriated funds, overcharged for services and destroyed evidence of its misdeeds. BofA later paid to settle lawsuits concerning its dealings with Enron ($69 million) and another corporate criminal, WorldCom ($460 million).

In the wake of the financial crisis, BofA had to enter into several multi-billion-dollar settlements concerning the sale of toxic securities and various mortgage abuses. It is for all these reasons that BofA tops the Violation Tracker ranking of the most penalized parent companies, with payouts of more than $58 billion.

BofA is not unique in this respect. Another major bank is also one of the ten most penalized corporations overall as well as high on the lists of those with the most penalties related to workplace discrimination and wage theft. That bank is Wells Fargo, which ranks sixth on the Violation Tracker list with over $14 billion in penalties, ninth in the discrimination tally with $68 million and fourth in the wage theft tally with $205 million.

Wells Fargo, of course, is notorious for creating millions of bogus accounts to generate illicit fees and other deceptive practices. Last year, the Federal Reserve took the unprecedented step of barring the bank from growing any larger until it cleaned up its act. The agency also announced that the bank had been pressured to replace four members of its board of directors.

Bank of America and Wells Fargo demonstrate all too clearly that mistreatment of customers can go hand-in-hand with mistreatment of workers.