Aireial Mack said she was hired on the spot when she applied for a sales position at the LA Fitness health club in Slidell. In the end, Mack said her experience on the job was far from healthy. It was toxic.
An African-American woman, Mack’s four-month stint at LA Fitness ended after she said she received a racially offensive text message from her supervisor saying her natural hair didn’t “…meet LA Fitness standards in a fro”.
The 26-year-old is preparing to file a lawsuit against LA Fitness alleging racial discrimination after she says she was denied the opportunity to work because of her hair and fired.
“I walked in confident and I left out a whole other way. I left out broken,” Mack said in an interview.
Mack said, at the time she worked at LA Fitness, she was one of two African-Americans employed at the Slidell club, and she was supervised by two white men: General Manager Mark Mayeux and Assistant General Manager Blake Mata.
Mack said she first had a problem with Mata’s racially-offensive language when an African American man walked by their desks a short time after she had started.
“They had this guy who works out a lot, and Blake was into fitness, the guy passed by and went that n----r is big,” Mack recalled.
She said she was stunned, but quickly realized Mata’s use of the “n word” was normalized by his supervisor, the general manager.
Outraged and offended, Mack said she started recording her conversations with other employees, including three conversations with Mata in which he used the “n” word.
“He started asking me really unintelligent questions that I found to be ignorant like how do black people have highlights in their hair? He used to touch my hair and be like, is this a weave,” she said.
Three months into the job, she said she had enough. She says she took her complaints to Mayeux, Mata's boss.
Twenty minutes after their conversation, Mack said Mayeux told her his boss, the regional Vice President, instructed him to place an employment ad online to replace Mack.
While he didn’t place the ad, Mack said things went from bad to worse for her in the workplace.
“[Blake] knew I had an issue with him using the "n" word, it got around to everyone else, so I was very uncomfortable because now my peers, who are a different race from me, knew that I’m being targeted due to race, so no one wanted to talk to me after that,” Mack said.
Fitness Director Angelle Torres did.
Mack said she received a text message from a number known to be Torres' on New Year’s Day: "I think they trying to get you fired… Blake told Mark we should have never hire that n----r."
Torres said she remembers warning Mack, but said she doesn't remember if she did it via text message.
The following day, on January 2, 2018, Mack said she received a text message from a phone number that she knew to be Mata's:
“Hey, this is Blake just doing a follow up with you. We took you off the schedule because your hair doesn't meet LA FITNESS STANDARDS in a fro. We want a classy appearance we don't want to leak off a n----r style.don’t take it the wrong way, just change it, talk to me in person if you need to."
Mack was on her lunch break, and said it took her some time to regain her composure after she received the text.
“It broke me. Because I didn't think that's how they felt about me. You know, they made comments, but I was like, wow. They hate me,” she said.
After receiving Mata's text, Mack said she returned to the gym and confronted Mayeux with it. She said he apologized for it.
An hour later, she texted Mayeux, "Hey, I just vomited on myself. I'm feel very sick. I don't think I can finish the day. Sorry."
She would never return to work at LA Fitness. She texted Mayeux the following Saturday she still wasn't feeling well and wouldn't be in. Mayeux replied "Ok".
On Sunday, January 7, while she was at an urgent care clinic, seeking treatment for nausea and anxiety, Mayeux left her a voicemail firing her.
“Kirt [the regional Vice President] had called yesterday when nobody showed up over there to work… He knows that you didn't come in again yesterday or today so, he's telling me we have to move on. I didn't want you to come all the way over Tuesday for me to tell you that we are going to release you,” Mayeux said in his voicemail.
Torres also described the work environment at the Slidell LA Fitness as “toxic.” Torres held the position of Fitness Manager for seven months.
She, Mack, Mayeux and Mata all sat at desks in an open-air office connected to the gym.
“They had a blatant disregard for treating people equally,” Torres said. Mata and Mayeux regularly used racial slurs about African-Americans within earshot of Torres.
“They tried to hide that as much as possible in using a code word,” she said.
In March, Mack filed a complaint against LA Fitness and its parent company Fitness International with the Louisiana Commission on Human Rights and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC.
In July, Mack received a failed conciliation memo from the LCHR that says LA Fitness responded to Mack's complaint claiming she, “…constantly called out sick and exhibited a very poor work ethic even when she was present.”
Mack said she was late for work a few times, but she was never reprimanded or written up for poor job performance.
The letter says the LCHR investigation found Mack may not have been fired just because of her race or for standing up against the discrimination, but according to the LCHR, LA Fitness violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which protects people from discrimination in the workplace, “…because she was taken off the schedule due to her natural hair.”
Once Mack files her discrimination lawsuit, Human Resources Expert Stefanie Allweiss said the court will have to decide whether the conduct rose to the level of a hostile environment.
“That is something that occurs over a period of time. It may not be one incident. It's usually a series of incidents. It's the environment, not necessarily the decision that is made,” Allweiss said.
In Mack's case, she said she recorded Mata, her supervisor, using the "n" word in conversation at least three times.
“It's easy for someone to say, to get another job. But what about doing the right thing,” Mack said.
Torres expressed deep regret about not doing more to help when they were both employed at the club.
“I'm very ashamed at how I handled those situations because I could have done more. And I didn't,” she said.
Last week, we saw Mata and Mayeux entering the gym for their work days.
Mata's Facebook page indicates he was promoted to Fitness Manager a month after he sent the text to Mack, filling Torres' job when she left.
Mata and Mayeux didn't return calls or texts seeking comment.
When reached by phone, the club’s operations manager asked us to email LA Fitness corporate communications, but they have yet to comment.
The company came under fire in April after a black man in New Jersey posted videos of himself alleging he and his friend, who were both members, were being racially profiled by LA Fitness employees.
According to media reports, at the time LA Fitness said it was considering diversity training, like Starbucks had just done after it’s racial profiling scandal.
It is unclear whether LA Fitness ever conducted that training with its employees.
“It was sickening to have to sit there and bear witness to it. But I had to feed my family. I didn't have a choice. I was scared to speak up and say anything about it. Because I didn't want to lose my job,” Torres said.
When asked what made her decide to speak up now, Torres replied, “Because right is right. That's why.”
When he left the voicemail firing Mack, Mayeux said, “Good working with you and you know, you're welcome to come in whenever you like to work out. But like I said, we're gonna have to move on. I hope you learned some things.”
Mack said she sure did, about hate.
“I'm truly broken. I'm just not the same,” she said.
After LCHR found the company, in part, violated Mack’s rights, LA Fitness offered her a $2,000 settlement through the agency’s conciliation process.
Mack declined, opting to hire an attorney with plans to file a lawsuit instead.
Katie Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was edited to more accurately reflect Torres' statements to Eyewitness News about the warning text message Mack said she received from a number known to belong to Torres. A previous version said Torres sent a warning text to Mack. She received the voicemail from Mayeux on January 7, 2018, not January 8, 2018 as previously reported.