|By Anne Saker, The Oregonian, Portland,
Ore.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Apr. 22, 2008 - --The federal government accused McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurants in court Monday of discriminating for a decade against African American workers and applicants in its Baltimore restaurants. Earlier this month, the Portland-based chain agreed to pay $1.1 million to settle a similar case in San Francisco.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, filing suit in Baltimore, said McCormick & Schmick's practiced a long-standing pattern of weeding out African American applicants, assigning African American employees to less desirable shifts and publishing job ads that "indicated a preference" for workers who were not African American.
"What we're saying is that we have a systematic violation here," said Jacqueline McNair, the EEOC lawyer who filed the Baltimore case. "The evidence is showing that there is a pattern and practice within the corporation."
Officials with McCormick & Schmick's referred calls to ICR, a New York public relations company, which Monday issued a one-paragraph statement:
"We are an equal employment opportunity employer that maintains policies prohibiting unlawful discrimination or harassment. Notwithstanding this, our practice is not to discuss specific details that are the subject of such claims as it may impair our ability to successfully resolve them."
On April 3, McCormick & Schmick's settled the class-action case in San Francisco brought in 2006 by an employee and a former applicant who said the company discriminated against them in assignments and in hiring because they were African American.
In the settlement, the company agreed to pay about 3,000 current or former employees $1.1 million. The chain also agreed to establish a program for all of its restaurants, overseen by an outside "diversity monitor," to increase hiring and promotion of African American workers.
A final hearing on the settlement is scheduled for Aug. 7 in San Francisco.
Jahan Sagafi, a lawyer representing the class of workers, said McCormick & Schmick's will not acknowledge any wrongdoing.
The new hiring and promotions plan, he said, is typical of others, with a significant fine and a plan to increase minority hiring.
On Monday, the company did not respond to repeated efforts to obtain comment on the San Francisco settlement. However, when the case was filed in May 2006, the company issued a statement through a Westport, Conn., public relations firm:
"McCormick & Schmick's is an equal employment opportunity employer that prohibits unlawful discrimination or harassment. It is our practice not to discuss specific details that are the subject of claims or lawsuits such as this as that might impair our ability to successfully resolve them. So although we must refrain from any discussion about this lawsuit, I can tell you that we believe these allegations to be completely unfounded."
McCormick & Schmick's, formed in the early 1970s, operates 85 restaurants and catering facilities in the United States and Canada. It has headquarters in downtown Portland, where it runs Jake's Famous Crawfish. Doug Schmick is the chairman and chief executive officer; co-founder William McCormick now is the U.S. ambassador to New Zealand.
The two men sold the chain in 1997 for $68 million but bought it back in 2001 for $123.5 million. The company went public on the Nasdaq Stock Exchange in 2004. On Monday, the stock added 7 cents to $11.79.
Discrimination claims to the EEOC have spiked nationwide in the past year. Last month, the agency said the number of 2007 workplace-discrimination cases rose nearly 10 percent from 2006, the biggest increase since 1993. Race-discrimination claims totaled more than 30,500 in 2007, a 12 percent increase, the biggest jump since 1994.
The EEOC's lawsuit offered few details about actions of McCormick & Schmick's that the agency considers discriminatory, other than to say they took place from 1998 to now. The EEOC also said that in hiring advertisements, the company mostly used models who were not minorities.
The San Francisco case, pursued by private lawyers, had more details. Juanita Wynne, the lead plaintiff, was hired in November 1999 at the chain's Spenger's Fish Grotto in Berkeley, Calif.
In 2002 and 2003, Wynne said, she noticed that her shifts and pay were cut about in half, although she said white workers were not affected. She said the restaurant tended to seat African American customers at the back so that they were not visible at the door.
Her lawsuit said that in hiring and promotion, McCormick & Schmick's management "focused on whether applicants and employees properly reflect the preferred white look and image rather than whether they would be responsible, effective, diligent employees who could perform their jobs well."
The suit said the chain pushed African American workers to "back-of-the-house" jobs to be out of the public eye and targeted white workers for the higher profile jobs such as bartending and seating guests.
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