Thirteen women are suing the Black News Channel for gender discrimination, accusing the Florida-based network of unequal pay for female employees and a workplace culture that forced them “to conform to sexist or misogynistic stereotypes about how women are supposed to behave.”
In an amended complaint filed Tuesday in the Cook County, Illinois, Circuit Court, the 13 plaintiffs allege that executives at the 2-year-old network disciplined or terminated female employees for being too vocal, pushy and aggressive, created a hostile work environment for women and paid women thousands of dollars less per year than their male counterparts.
Ashley Flete, a former anchor who first filed suit with Claudia Jean last August, said that a producer had been “berating” her about being “insufficiently feminine” through her earpiece while she was on air. After filing a complaint with human resources, she said her contract was terminated six months into a two-year contract.
Per the complaint, BNC claimed Flete was terminated because they no longer needed a morning show host, but she believed this action was in retaliation to her complaint.
In a statement provided to TheWrap, a rep for BNC said the company plans to challenge the suit; further, that the company takes seriously any unprofessional and inappropriate conduct in the workplace and has investigated the claims made in the suit — without noting the outcome of its investigations.
The other plaintiffs include talent producer Claudia Jean, executive producer Maria Roach, newsroom executive Felicia Burton, director Lauren Coleman, line producer Kyra Branch and part-time assignment editor Kisha Wilkinson; six additional plaintiffs are listed as “Jane Doe” on the complaint. Only Branch and one unnamed plaintiff are still working at BNC; all others were either fired or resigned.
During her employment, Coleman said in the complaint that she was paid significantly less than male technical directors at BNC. When all the male directors received raises between $10,000 and $15,000 last summer, she said she was denied a salary bump. She gave two weeks notice after finding out the discrepancy and claimed BNC refused to pay her the full amount of accrued vacation and sick time in retaliation.
Branch, who held several producer roles at the network, alleges that male line producers made $90,000 — significantly more than her own $55,000 salary. Another unnamed plaintiff said she worked at BNC in 2020 as an assignment manager with a starting pay of $43,000, while her male counterparts in the same position typically made between $80,000 and $100,000 annually, according to the complaint.
Burton repeatedly spoke to HR about overall inappropriate behavior from male employees, including accusations that male staffers made romantic and sexual overtures toward female employees and subordinates. One also claimed that a male employee placed drugs in the beverages of female employees. Per the complaint, Burton was later told it was inappropriate to report those male employees “because their conduct was ‘in the past,’” and she was then stripped of her position, direct reports and title while out on medical leave.
Wilkinson, who started as an assignment editor and was promoted to senior planner in 2020, said she also made a complaint about pay disparity and reported two instances of sexual harassment to HR. She said she was instructed by her male superiors not to speak during meetings “because they said women do not sound intelligent,” the filing says. An unnamed plaintiff also described instances of male managers judging female employees based on their physical attractiveness in front of her and asking her opinion about their attractiveness.
Based in Tallahassee, Florida, BNC is the only full-time national news channel targeting Black viewers, reaching up to 50 million pay TV homes since launching in 2020. The network was co-founded by former Oklahoma Republican congressman J.C. Watts and broadcast veteran Bob Brillante.
Among the network’s main anchors are Sharon Reed, Mike Hill, Laverne McGee, Del Walters, Marc Lamont Hill, Kelly Wright and Charles Blow. Programming is on most major carriers from DIRECTV to Xfinity, but the company has been facing many challenges with its workforce and ratings performance.
Last month, the company announced layoffs just days before the Christmas holiday as the network continued struggling in the ratings. It did not specify how many staffers would be cut, but BNC employs roughly 300 people. “We kind of felt this was going to happen,” one staffer who was not authorized to speak on behalf of the company previously told TheWrap.
In a ratings ranking of all 124 cable channels in 2021, BNC tied with Comedy.tv for second-to-last place with an average of 4,000 viewers throughout the year, beating only BeIN Sports. In comparison, the highest-rated cable channel out of all 124 is Fox News, which averaged 2.36 million primetime viewers each evening in 2021.
Pamela Chelin contributed to this report.