A lawsuit that accused two Baltimore restaurants of discriminating against African-American job applicants and employees was settled to the tune of $1.3 million plus injunctive relief, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced recently.
Filed in 2008, the EEOC complaint charged McCormick & Schmick’s Restaurant Corp. with violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by engaging in a pattern of race discrimination against Black job seekers by refusing to hire them for front-of-the-house positions at its two Baltimore locations, McCormick and Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant and M&S Grill.
The EEOC further alleged that African-American employees working the front of the house at the establishments were denied equal work assignments because of their race. In addition, the company’s advertising for open positions on its website contained visual depictions of employees that expressed a preference for non-Black workers to the ordinary reader.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, but was settled prior to any adjudication by the federal court.
“Fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the EEOC remains as firmly committed to combating race discrimination in the workplace as the day we opened our doors,” said EEOC General Counsel David Lopez in a statement. “We are pleased we were able to resolve this important case on mutually acceptable terms.”
The consent decree settling the suit establishes a claims fund of $1.3 million for eligible claimants. This includes African Americans who sought employment or were employed as servers, cocktail servers, bussers, hostesses/hosts and/or bartenders at either or both of the restaurants at any time during the period of Jan. 1, 1998 to Jan. 1, 2010.
“This settlement gives hope that when wrong has been done it will be corrected,” said Jose Anderson, professor of law, University of Baltimore.
Anderson said in some ways the case was surprising. “We’ve gotten into the habit of ignoring these patterns that were so familiar to us in the past,” he said of the McCormick’s practice of discrimination. Which is why the EEOC’s demonstrated commitment to still pursue these cases is so “encouraging,” Anderson added. “We still have to be diligent about identifying discrimination wherever it is taking place.”
In addition to monetary relief, the two-year consent decree between the EEOC and McCormick’s provides non-monetary relief meant to promote equal opportunity for Black job applicants and workers. It includes the creation of a quota for hiring Black workers for front-of-the-house positions at the two Baltimore locations; the use of targeted recruitment to attract African-American job prospects, and provides for a decree compliance monitor, among other provisions.
“It is always good to see the employer stepping up and admitting that its practices may not be as equal,” said Ray McClain, Employment Discrimination Project director, of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
The case is emblematic of an ongoing and persistent problem on the civil rights landscape, McClain said. “Workplace discrimination is rampant and it’s been on the increase since Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980,” the attorney said.
The Republican president elected a conservative to head EEOC which “sent a signal to companies that they no longer had to be concerned about federal oversight,” McCain said. The professional staff responsible for litigating such cases was “decimated.”
“There’s been a constant deterioration in enforcement of protections,” he said. “That is in contrast to the fact that in many jobs there has been an increase in participation by African Americans. But, to a large degree, many of those jobs have been vacated as they become less attractive to White employees . . . it’s not been because of an absence of workplace discrimination.”
According to EEOC statistics, the number of cases filed alleging race-based workplace discrimination has more than quadrupled in a 16-year period from 762 in 1997 to 3,146 in 2013.
“That’s only the tip of the iceberg,” McClain said because workplace discrimination is very hard to prove and many times the victims are not even aware of being the subject of discrimination. In fact, out of every 100 cases of such discrimination an estimated one is reported. “It’s clear that it is an endemic and systemic problem that needs to be attacked in every way people of good will and government can manage it.”