- A Black woman employed at Pret A Manger, an international chain of sandwich shops, has sued the company claiming race bias and hostile work environment under New York City law (Battle v. Pret A Manger USA (Limited) and Jairo Ramos, No. 26670/2020E (Supreme Court of the State of New York County of Bronx, July 1, 2020)).
- Shaquana Battle alleged she was subjected to daily use of a racial slur by her manager and co-workers while working at the New York City store. After she complained to the corporate office, Battle said she was given reduced hours, passed over for promotions, singled out for criticism and assigned menial tasks.
- Battle's attorneys said in a statement to HR Dive's sister site Food Dive that Pret denied that the plaintiff faced discrimination at work and "downplayed the use of the racial slur as mere 'inappropriate language' that 'was not being used in a way intended as derogatory.'" Pret A Manger did not respond to a request for comment.
The plaintiff's attorneys brought the case pursuant to the New York City Human Rights Law, under which they said "companies are accountable for their managers' discriminatory conduct, including participation in a racially hostile environment and the failure to prevent such an environment when the manager knows about it."
To support a claim for hostile work environment under federal law, a workplace must be "intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people" to be considered unlawful. Petty slights, annoyances and isolated work incidents, unless extremely serious, generally aren't enough to make a case for unlawful behavior, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Pret has been on the receiving end of a number of lawsuits over the years, though most of the chain's infractions have concerned employee wages. In 2018, the restaurant was ordered to pay $875,000 to employees at its 33 New York City locations after it rounded down hours and didn't pay overtime wages, which are required by New York state law. This marked the second time in four years that the chain was on the hook for wage violations.
And Pret is far from the only major chain to be accused of racial bias recently. Both Taco Bell and Starbucks came under fire a few weeks ago over how the companies handled employees that wanted to wear clothing that supported Black Lives Matter while at work. Starbucks initially barred its workers from wearing BLM attire, but quickly reversed its policy after widespread consumer backlash, with critics pointing out that the chain still allowed employees to wear LGBTQ+ pins and attire for Pride month. Taco Bell issued an apology after a manger fired a restaurant employee for wearing a BLM face mask.
But like the situation at Pret, racial discrimination issues have much deeper roots at major QSRs as well. In January, two senior McDonald's executives accused the company of pushing out Black senior leadership and franchisees. If these chains do not reckon with the realities of their workplace cultures, they could risk serious damage to their brand reputations, to franchisee loyalty and consumer confidence — serious blows in a time of so much economic uncertainty.