It's been nearly 50 years since landmark passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that among other things prohibited discrimination in employment based on race or national origin. But that doesn't mean blacks and other minorities don't still face discriminatory practices on the job.
One such allegation in particular has gained recent national attention thanks in part to an Internet campaign by a black-advocacy organization, ColorOfChange.org, that charges Darden Restaurants, the nation's largest dining chain, with discriminating against blacks by refusing to hire them at its tony Capital Grille franchise.
PHOTO: A former Capital Grille dishwasher, Javier Rosas (left), reads a list of demands to management of Darden Restaurants during a recent event with ROC United organizers in Los Angeles.
The group started a online petition earlier this month urging Darden and its CEO, Clarence Otis Jr., who is black, to end discriminatory hiring practices. ColorOfChange says Capital Grille is the only Darden unit where workers can earn a living wage, but blacks are rarely considered for jobs there. Further, it says, it's difficult for workers at other Darden properties, which include Red Lobster and Olive Garden, to get promoted to better-paying positions at Capital Grille.
The effort follows the filing of a class-action lawsuit late last month against the company by a group seeking to improve wages and working conditions for restaurant workers. The group, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, says in a statement announcing the suit that restaurant workers are "fed up over years of low pay and discrimination from profitable restaurant owners."
ROC United, as the group refers to itself in short, is targeting Capital Grille locations in Chicago, New York and Washington in the lawsuit, it says in a statement. The suit alleges violations of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and the Civil Rights Act which, ROC United says, reflect a corporate-wide policy of racial discrimination.
Those violations include such things as forcing employees to work without pay, not providing breaks to workers, and forcing tipped workers to share their tips with non-tipped workers. ROC United also alleges that nearly all "servers of color" were fired after a management shakeup at a Maryland Capital Grille.
For its part, Darden denies the allegations. In an emailed statement, company spokesman Rich Jeffers tells AOL Jobs that the company has a "firm commitment to diversity and inclusion at all levels of the company," and doesn't tolerate discrimination of any kind.
Further, Jeffers said, Darden believes ROC's claims are baseless but "will investigate them thoroughly." He cited internal statistics that show 30 percent of the company's managers are minorities, and that minorities make up 35 percent of those being trained as managers.
If Darden's claims of operating a discrimination-free workplace are true, it would be unique in an industry known for having "quite extreme lines of occupational segregation on the basis of race," says Risa L. Lieberwitz, professor of labor and employment law at Cornell University's school of industrial and labor relations.
The near-universal existence of racial discrimination within food service jobs is one reason ROC United chose a high-profile target such as Darden for its lawsuit.
Publicity generated from the action can achieve several aims, including creating pressure on the industry to make changes in hiring practices, which may in turn may lead other restaurant chains to adopt revised polices to avoid also being sued, Lieberwitz says.
Another goal is to educate the public by getting consumers to think twice about where they spend their dining dollars so as to not support workplace discrimination -- much in the same way that consumers have demanded, for example, that manufacturers make safer toys or stop adding high fructose corn syrup to food products.
Getting the public on the side of those seeking change in work practices can speed change by forcing a settlement. (A class-action lawsuit that goes to trial can put a company at risk of further bad publicity.) Such settlements may include money, but they could also include programs to improve minority hiring.
It's all part of an overall strategy to change practices within the industry, Lieberwitz says. One in which it appears that race does still matter.
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