LOWER MANHATTAN — When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in the spring that ferry operator Hornblower Inc. had been picked to provide citywide service starting in 2017, he lauded the company for its “decade-long record as a strong union employer.”
But lawsuits by former employees and interviews with union officials who have seen their members lose jobs contradict that labor-friendly description of Hornblower, a nationwide provider of ferries, charter boats and sightseeing tours.
In New York alone, Hornblower has faced accusations of racial discrimination and wage violations.
Two former black employees are currently suing the ferry operator’s subsidiary Statue Cruises, claiming they were fired because of their race.
Their accusations were bolstered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which investigated the claims and found that the company created a hostile environment for the former workers.
The federal agency also concluded that there was reasonable cause to believe the workers were discriminated against based on their race.
Hornblower is also currently facing a class-action lawsuit claiming that it wrongfully withheld tips from catering staff on charter cruises around New York City.
The ferry provider has faced similar lawsuits involving racial discrimination and wage violations in other parts of the country.
It’s also been accused of intimidating employees who have complained about wage violations or tried to self-organize, according to complaints filed with the National Labor Relations Board and a lawsuit.
“Anyone who has spent more than 60 seconds on the internet would discover that their labor record is pathetic and they have no business operating in a city that supports good wages, benefits and respects the right of workers to have unions,” said Craig Merrilees, a spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which saw members lose their jobs after Hornblower took over a lucrative federal contract to operate ferries to Alcatraz Island in 2006.
In March New York City’s Economic Development Corporation chose Hornblower over other bidders to run a new five-borough ferry service. The six-year deal will cost the city at least $30 million a year to subsidize.
Hornblower already has an existing contract with the city through its subsidiary Statue Cruises, which runs boats to the Statue of Liberty from the Battery in Lower Manhattan. DNAinfo New York reported exclusively last week that the city Department of Investigation has opened a probe into Hornblower’s connections to an illegal ticket trade of the Liberty Island cruises.
Hornblower, which has been in business for 35 years and has a current workforce of more than 1,600 employees, said in a statement that it is “very proud of our solid labor record and diverse workforce.”
“The company has put in place fair and strong HR policies and has never been found liable in court for racial discrimination,” the statement said. “All material unfair labor practice complaints involving Hornblower have been dismissed, withdrawn or settled by the parties. We have solid relationships with our crew and the union that represents our crew members, and we are incredibly excited about all of the new quality jobs we are creating in New York City.”
EDC spokesman Anthony Hogrebe also said Hornblower is a good employer, praising it for its commitment to pay a $15 per hour starting wage to its workers a year and a half before the state's minimum wage reaches that level.
“EDC selected Hornblower to operate Citywide Ferry in no small part because of its record of providing good wages and benefits to workers, and strong history of working with organized labor,” Hogrebe said. “We look forward to Citywide Ferry bringing over 150 good-paying jobs to New York Harbor, and we will continue to perform thorough oversight of our operator throughout its contract.”
Andre Washington and Lester Tyson filed a federal lawsuit against Hornblower and Statue Cruises in 2015, claiming they were fired because they were black.
Both men began working for the company Liberty Landing Ferries in 2007. A year later, Hornblower acquired Liberty Landing and took over the cruises to the Statue of Liberty.
Washington, one of the only black captains operating a commercial ferry in New York Harbor, was highly regarded and filled in for his ship’s regular captain when necessary, according to the lawsuit. Meanwhile, Tyson was a popular deckhand, collecting tickets and helping passengers on and off the ferries.
The lawsuit says that during their final year of employment, Washington and Tyson were treated differently from their white counterparts.
Washington was asked to fill in for the regular captain less frequently.
Instead, the job went to less-experienced captains, including one who garnered the nickname "Captain Crunch" for being so inept that he damaged his ship on several occasions while attempting to dock, the lawsuit says.
Meanwhile, Tyson, who suffers from a medical problem requiring bathroom breaks, was arbitrarily denied use of the restroom by the regular ship captain, according to the lawsuit.
Tyson was also denied a replacement for his worn-out float coat — a jacket used by deckhands that have floatation devices — while a less-senior part-time employee received new one, according to the lawsuit.
The two were ultimately fired in 2013 after the management accused them of stealing time by clocking into work for one another.
The lawsuit says that it was a customary practice for a crew member to punch the clock for co-workers.
Washington and Tyson said in the lawsuit they were always present in each other’s company when they clocked in for one another. Moreover, a separate timesheet was kept on their ship, showing that they did not steal time, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit says they were the only employees fired for clocking in each other despite other workers doing the same. The two men have also been unable to find work in the harbor since their terminations, according to the lawsuit.
Hornblower has denied the accusations in the lawsuit, and the two sides are currently in settlement talks. A lawyer for Washington and Tyson declined to comment.
Complaints against Hornblower’s labor practices also include:
► Catering staff for Hornblower’s sightseeing and charter operations in New York filed a lawsuit in 2015, claiming that the company didn’t give them proceeds from the service fees that it charged customers.
The lawsuit claims that most customers were led to believe that the service fee was a gratuity for staff. New York law prohibits employers from retaining any portion of an employee’s gratuity or a charge purported to be a tip.
Hornblower has said in filings in the case that when it charges customers an administrative fee for an event, it expressly says the fee is not a gratuity for its employees.
► Jiboku Ayokunle — a black guest-services agent for Hornblower subsidiary Alcatraz Cruises, which provides ferry service to the former prison island off San Francisco — said he quit his job after management didn’t respond to his complaints about his co-workers and supervisors repeatedly making racist remarks to him.
He sued Hornblower in 2015, claiming his civil rights were violated because of the racist verbal abuse as well as being denied promotions. The two sides later settled and signed non-disclosure agreements.
► Cooks and wait staff for Hornblower in Los Angeles sued the company in 2008, claiming they were not provided a rest period during their work day nor were they compensated in pay for the missed rest period. The case was later settled.
► Howard Flecker III, a deckhand for Statue Cruises, filed a lawsuit in 2009 claiming that a collective-bargaining agreement between his maritime union, Local 333, and the boat operator violated New Jersey’s wage laws because he only received overtime pay after working more than 48 hour in a week.
Flecker later claimed Statue Cruises tried to intimidate him by writing a memo informing all its employees about Flecker and his lawsuit and cutting their hours to 40 hours per week until the case was resolved.
Flecker said he later resigned from his job after his co-workers repeatedly confronted him about the lawsuit and the work hours they were losing. While a jury awarded Flecker $560,000 in 2014, the judgment was set aside. Instead Flecker and Statue Cruises reached a settlement.
Ron Tucker, the vice president of the Atlantic Maritime Group, the union that currently represents Statue Cruises workers, said that his members have had a "good, ongoing relationship" with Hornblower.
Tucker said Statue Cruises employees have had continuous union contract with Hornblower, and the members have gotten raises each year.
"There's been issues where we thought they were wrong, and they know we would file grievances," Tucker said.
► Two unions, the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific and the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, took legal action against Hornblower in 2006 to try to block the National Park Service from awarding it a 10-year contract to run ferry service to Alcatraz island.
The prior ferry provider ran a union operation but Hornblower was non-union and made all the existing employees reapply for jobs.
Ultimately, the court battle led to Hornblower subsidiary Alcatraz Cruises paying union wages to the employees.
But Marina Secchitano, a regional director at the Inlandboatmen’s Union, said that Alcatraz Cruises didn’t rehire many of its members.
“We had excellent employees for 25 years — top in their field — and they weren’t good enough for [Hornblower owner] Terry Macrae,” Secchitano said.
Hornblower said that of its initial crew at Alcatraz Cruises, about 30 percent were the union predecessor’s employees. It said it hired more union employees from its predecessor than from other Hornblower business units, and that it provided jobs to the most qualified applicants.
The San Francisco-based unions have continued to try to organize Alcatraz Cruises but have been unsuccessful.
The unions and former employees at Alcatraz Cruises have filed five complaints with the National Labor Relations Board between 2010 and 2015 accusing Hornblower of firing or surveilling workers who try to organize a union.
However, the NLRB investigated and determined that the claims were unfounded.