Claims of Racism Haunt Woodlawn Cemetery

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Last Friday, 30 demonstrators – mostly minority workers just getting off work, still dressed in hard hats and construction boots – joined community leaders outside of the northeastern gates of Woodlawn Cemetery to protest what they describe as a culture of racism and favoritism among cemetery administrators.

Cemetery employees were not actually in attendance because they feared retribution by their superiors.

The employees, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, claim to work in a culture dominated by fear. Fear to stand up for themselves and speak against the bigotry they say they encounter. Because when they do, they say it leads to even further harassment by their bosses. Employees who have spoken up or complained in the past say they've been punished by being assigned more laborious jobs or have been isolated to work alone.

In response to the charges, Woodlawn Cemetery released a statement provide by their spokesman, Gary Lewi, via email: “We take seriously the allegations that have been presented as evidenced by our decision to underwrite an independent review. As the solemn custodian of sacred ground we believe we have more than just a legal obligation but an ethical one to maintain the highest standards of employment, one that embraces diversity, respects the employee and encourages promotion and career advancement regardless of race, color, creed or gender.”

Details about the cemetery's independent review remain murky.

Cemetery administrators responded to the allegations by prompting an “independent review” conducted by the offices of Salvador Collazo. The review – scheduled to be finished on June 30, but is so far unreleased by Woodlawn – is assumed to be an investigation into the claims by employees who say that they were subjected to racial slurs and harassment by cemetery Foreman, Rocco Pipoli.

The employees claim that Pipoli used derogatory, racial epithets in reference to their African and Latino heritages, “Pipoli called me over one day, shortly after he took over as Foreman and asked me, 'Do you know what they call you from where I come from? Spear chucker.” explained one of the African American employees.

These employees, all of which describe their job titles as “General Employees”, or laborers at the cemetery, also allege that even after complaints were made to Superintendents, Human Resource workers and the Vice President of Woodlawn Cemetery, Pipoli was not repramanded, but instead promoted.

“There are other employees who remain silent, in fear of retaliation, in fear that we will be made examples of to teach us a lesson”, says one of the workers, “But we instinctively cannot sit back and be disrespected, we cannot be kept quite, we will stand up for our rights!”

Check back to the Bronx News Network blog, or in next week's issue of the Norwood News for more details on Woodlawn's investigation into the accusations and further details of the abuse alleged by employees.