Ten African-American workers who were previously employed at a TGI Friday’s in New York City are suing the restaurant for racial discrimination, saying they were told they would be re-hired after their location shut down and a new one opened nearby but only white and Latino employees were brought over.
The non-black managers at the restaurant, located near Madison Square Garden, allegedly said they wanted to avoid the old location being a “ghetto store.” Then in December it closed and reopened with the same management less than a block away. While the black employees say they were encouraged to reapply for their jobs and were assured they would be rehired, they say none of them got their jobs back. Two-thirds of the servers and most of the cooks at the old location were black, but none were rehired and got no response or told all the positions were filled when they followed up about their applications, even though open positions were posted on Craigslist. Most of the plaintiffs had years of experience; two had worked at the restaurant for 14 years.
Most of the employees who were hired at the new restaurant were allegedly Hispanic or light-skinned; the lawsuit claims just one black server was brought over, who was light skinned. They also had little or no industry experience. The manager of the new location also allegedly said he prefers to hire Hispanics because they “work harder.” The company did not respond to a request for comment.
Levon Smith, one of the plaintiffs, had worked at the restaurant for more than eight years and eventually became a senior server and shift supervisor who trained other employees. But now he’s out of a job. He said he was told repeatedly he would keep his job when the new store opened. “They always told us, ‘You guys are going over there,’” he said. “They said it would close down for a month or two, maybe three months, they would do construction, and you guys will be over there.”
That’s not how it worked out, though. “They never called us back, never responded,” he said. Yet before the old location was even closed he says that Hispanic servers and a white bartender had already started working at the new one.
Smith and his former coworkers are angry about what happened. “You brought people over there who just got hired who weren’t even half the server I was,” he said. “It’s unfair and I’m disrespected by it.” He says he’s surprised that such a thing would happen today. “It’s 2015 and, really? This stuff still goes on? It’s just so blatant and obvious.”
It’s not just that he’s lost his job. Given Smith’s seniority, he also lost all the accumulated vacation benefits and other perks that are earned with time. He’s lost the wages his family relies on given that he’s their provider. And the store has lost out on his experience. “We know the area,” he said. “There are people who come in there for us, we have our own clientele.”
The plaintiffs are seeking $5 million in damages. Smith would like compensation but would also just like “restoration or even maybe a job offer.”
The restaurant industry is rife with racial discrimination. People of color are less likely to get a job offer at a restaurant, and when they are hired they earn less than their white counterparts and are relegated to “back of the house” positions such as prep cooks and dishwashers or low-pay ones such as bussers and runners. Yet restaurants are the single largest employer of people of color, particularly in fast food.
Other fast food chains have been sued for racial discrimination: McDonald’s was hit with a suit in January from former employees who say managers used racial slurs and implemented a policy to fire black workers and hire more white ones. It was also hit with a lawsuit in July from former employees who say they were sexually harassed and subjected to disparaging racial comments. A former Taco Bell employee sued the company that same month saying that she was told not to hire Hispanics.
TGI Friday’s is facing other legal trouble. In January, 42,000 employees were given clearance to move forward with a class action lawsuit alleging widespread wage theft by failing to pay them at least the minimum wage and overtime.
National Restaurants Management, which owns TGI Friday’s, sent the following comment: “The restaurant in question has a workforce, including managers, that is more than 80 percent non-white. As this matter is in ligigation [sic], we cannot comment further.”