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Spenger’s Employees Claim Discrimination By JUDITH SCHERR

Tuesday February 28, 2006

Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto makes its African-American staff work in the back of its Fourth Street restaurant, away from most customers, according to the complaint in a lawsuit filed by the San Francisco law offices of Angela Alioto. 

Further, the complaint says, management has referred to African-Americans using racial slurs, such as “boy,” forces them to work more hours than their white counterparts without more pay, refuses them promotions, and derides them in public. It names Spenger’s owners, McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurants, as defendants. 

Alioto attorney Steven L. Robinson says the allegations, filed on behalf of eight former employees, are particularly shocking, given Spenger’s location. 

“Berkeley is one of the most liberal places in the state, the country and the world,” he said in a phone interview. “If something like that happens here, it’s very bad. This is one of the most hostile work places we’ve ever heard of.” 

In a written response filed with the courts, McCormick & Schmick, which owns some 50 restaurants and catering operations around the country, denied all allegations. The company, founded in the early 1970s, asserted that it “maintain(s) and enforce(s) policies prohibiting discrimination, harassment and retaliation against its employees. These policies encourage employees to come forward with complaints of discrimination, harassment and retaliation and provide for discipline (including termination) of any employee (including supervisors) found to have violated [the company’s] policy prohibiting discrimination, harassment and retaliation.”  

McCormick & Schmick and their attorneys, Jackson Lewis LLP, did not return calls requesting comment before deadline.  

To illustrate the prejudicial attitude, the complaint alleges that at a management meeting in November 2004, the company’s vice president “specified the kind of people corporate wanted in the front of the restaurant are ‘bubbly blondes with long legs.’”  

In addition to racial discrimination, the complaint charges that overweight staff and those over 50 face bigotry at Spenger’s. Management allegedly told one of the plaintiffs to place obese and older staff in the back, saying that “the old prima donnas … need to retire.”  

Further, employees were directed to discriminate against African-American customers, the suit alleges. Management told one of the plaintiffs that “African-American customers are loud, complain too much and don’t spend as much money as the Caucasian patrons,” the suit says. When the plaintiff complained, the suit alleges that, in retaliation, he was overloaded with work. 

“The workplace itself is segregated,” Robinson said. 

The company “has no problem hiring (minority) bus boys and waiters,” he said, adding that a large percentage of this staff is African American, Filipino, or Latino. “The wait staff is mostly white,” he said. 

At the same time, Robinson said, the Alioto law firm is looking into charges of discrimination at other McCormick & Schmick restaurants, though they have not filed other lawsuits against the company. 

Robinson said the case is likely to go to trial, but no date has been set.