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Blood Pressure: Workers Say NYC Lab Firm Discriminated Against Chinese Employees

Medical workers Yan Ling Xu, left, and Huimin who asked that her last name be withheld, say they were discriminated against by the lab that employed them, June 17, 2021.
Medical workers Yan Ling Xu, left, and Huimin, who asked that her last name be withheld, say they were discriminated against by the lab that employed them, June 17, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Six Chinese phlebotomists employed by a lab with locations in the city’s Chinatowns in Manhattan, Flushing and Sunset Park are alleging years of unequal pay and work conditions.

They were hired by BioReference Laboratories to draw blood and handle samples at the various locations — and later performed COVID-19 tests during the pandemic.

But instead, the medical workers say they were saddled with other tasks outside the job description that non-Chinese colleagues were exempted from, according to their discrimination allegations filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

That included lifting heavy boxes, ferrying supplies to doctors, emptying garbage cans, and addressing piles of insurance and laboratory forms, the workers said. Meanwhile, non-Chinese colleagues with less work experience and fewer responsibilities were paid more, the charges allege.

The six employees, all women, are being represented by The Legal Aid Society, which began filing the federal discrimination allegations — called “charges” in EEOC parlance — in late spring and is prepping a lawsuit.

Yan Ling Xu, 42, who worked as a BioReference phlebotomist for more than a decade, was previously a nurse in China.

In 2009, she was hired at a $10 hourly rate and promised annual raises, she said. In the following years, despite her repeated requests, Xu never received an annual raise of more than a dollar per hour, she said. She was making just under $20 when she quit in November 2020.

Then a coworker discovered a pay stub showing a recently hired non-Chinese coworker was earning roughly 20% more. Xu said she was deeply upset by the pay disparity, but felt she couldn’t speak out for fear of retaliation.

“We can’t say we don’t want to do it,” Xu, of downtown Brooklyn, said of the extra work. “If you say that, maybe you get fired. We have a family, we need to take care of the kids.”

Legal Aid lawyer Carmela Huang said the workers believed their ethnicity was the reason for being treated “in this sort of degrading fashion.”

“They certainly knew if they were not ethnically Chinese, they would not have been treated in this same way,” Huang added.

Hillary Titus, a BioReference spokesperson, declined comment.

Inhumane Treatment Alleged

In addition to pay inequity, the EEOC filings also detail other alleged disparate treatment, including differences in medical leave at BioReference’s patient service centers. There are more than a dozen of these locations across the city offering diagnostic testing, including COVID-19 and blood tests.

When 29-year-old Huimin got a job offer as a phlebotomist testing blood for BioReference Laboratories in 2017, it was accompanied by an explicit verbal warning from a supervisor, she said: Don’t get pregnant the first year.

So when she became pregnant early 2018, she anxiously hid her condition for months. She lifted boxes weighing up to 30 pounds until one day she began to hemorrhage, forcing her to notify her supervisors, said Huimin, who asked that her last name be withheld.

She said was required to give two weeks advance notice if she wanted to use a sick day. For the rest of her pregnancy, she said, she was nervous and worried about losing her job. That fall, she gave birth to a baby girl.

That same year, a colleague in her 40s who fell ill was denied sick leave and died weeks later, according to the workers’ filing with the EEOC.

“My coworker’s death left an extremely strong impression on me because it made me realize how little BioReference values us as human beings,” Huimin said in her federal filing.

Remaining at the job has taken a toll on her mental health, she said.

“When I’m alone, I feel very down, low self-esteem,” the Staten Islander added, noting that she is in therapy for depression.

A BioReference lab on Centre Street, in Lower Manhattan
A BioReference lab on Centre Street, in Lower Manhattan
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The filings also claim that the employees were not paid overtime for years.

During the height of the pandemic last year, employees also tested patients for COVID-19. They told THE CITY and said in their EEOC complaint that BioReference failed to adequately equip them to do so safely.

Each day, they were allotted just two non-medical-grade masks, one medical gown and gloves that looked used, said Huimin, adding she was once given a pair stained with blood.

From May to June of last year, Yu Jun Peng, who worked in the Flushing patient service centers, said she was assigned to conduct COVID-19 testing at Grand Central Station. While other phlebotomists were given travel stipends, she received nothing despite being assigned a 6 a.m. shift, according to her EEOC filing.

Peng, 34, who lives in Flushing, described the working conditions as “humiliating and frustrating.” She quit in March.

“After learning that my non-Chinese counterparts were being paid much more than I was, I now believe BioReference treated me as cheap labor because I am a Chinese woman and because of imperfect and accented English, easily exploited,” she said.

Just Starting to Fight

Legal Aid now awaits an official notice of right to sue from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before filing a lawsuit in court, Huang said.

If the EEOC doesn’t respond to a charge within 180 days, Legal Aid can request action, Huang added. Once the federal agency gives the official approval for a lawsuit, counsel has 90 days to begin court proceedings.

Prior to the EEOC filings, Legal Aid requested compensation for unpaid overtime and damages for emotional distress. A letter sent to BioReference in April highlighted that the company’s locations in Sunset Park, Flushing and Chinatown “almost exclusively recruit and hire ethnically Chinese phlebotomists” and that their additional tasks “were not regular practices” at the company’s other patient service centers.

The employees received slight raises after they repeatedly brought up the pay disparity to their supervisor and the New Jersey-based BioReference Laboratories corporate office, but Huimin said she still earns less than her non-Chinese coworkers and continues to perform additional duties.

Medical worker Yang Ling Xu says she was treated unfairly by her Chinatown-based employer, June 17, 2021.
Yang Ling Xu
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In 2019, phlebotomists earned a median salary of $35,000 nationwide, according to the U.S. News & World Report.

Xu, who has left BioReference, said she hopes the case will spur the company to treat employees equitably.

“This is really unfair. Well, we work at the same location. They treat us like this and pay other people much more and other people so little,” Xu said. “We will come out to fight for justice.”

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