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Waitress says weight loss demand violates civil rights under state law
By Chad Selweski, Macomb Daily Staff Writer
May 25, 2010
A Roseville waitress who says she was placed on probation by the Roseville Hooters restaurant for being overweight filed a discrimination lawsuit against the franchise Monday, claiming that she had actually lost weight while working there and had been placed on a fast track to a management position.
That all changed May 14 when Cassandra Smith, 20, says she was admonished by her bosses, told to join a gym and required to lose weight so that her extra-small Hooters uniform — short-shorts and a tight T-shirt — would appear more attractive.
In her suit, filed in Macomb County Circuit Court, Smith claims that she is a victim of weight discrimination, a civil rights violation under Michigan law.
The court papers say that she was recruited to work at Hooters two years ago when she weighed nearly 145 pounds. Since then, she repeatedly received high marks on her performance evaluations as a waitress and was promoted to shift leader, a supervisory position.
When she was told to regain her shape, she weighed 132 pounds and was 5-feet, 8-inches tall, according to the suit. Yet, a manager and assistant manager and two Hooters corporate representatives concluded that she could be discharged after a 30-day probation “because she was unable to meet the … discriminatory and illegal requirements of a ‘Hooters Girl,’” the suit alleges.
In an interview with The Macomb Daily last week, “Cassie” Smith said the two company executives notified her via conference call of their decision, without ever mentioning the word “weight.”
“It crushed me,” Smith said. “I had these two women from Atlanta telling me I had 30 days to make an improvement, and I didn’t know what I’m supposed to improve. I was proud of myself, working out the last months, losing 10 pounds to get ready for my summer body. For that (call) to happen, it was almost a slap in the face.”
In a company statement issued late Monday, Hooters denied that it has ever made a waitress’s weight an issue in terms of discipline or dismissal.
“No employee in Michigan has been asked to lose weight and … the company does not enforce any weight requirement,” the statement said.
“I must admit we are somewhat perplexed by this story” said Mike McNeil, the vice president of marketing for Hooters of America Inc. “We have heard and read that Miss Smith claims she was put on ‘weight probation’ while in other articles admitting she was not asked to lose weight and that she actually weighs 10 pounds less than she did when she was hired.
“She has stated that she is still employed but she has missed all of her scheduled shifts for the past week. We are now seeing that she claims she was ‘discharged,’ however no such action has been taken by Hooters. Hopefully we will begin to get some clarity on the matter in the near future.”
The suit was filed against the Roseville restaurant and the corporation, a global network of restaurants with more than 455 franchises.
McNeil said last week the chain maintains that “upholding an image-standard based on appearance, attitude and fitness is both legal and fair — it is not unlike the standard used by the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders or the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. However, as popular as the job might be, being a Hooters Girl is not for everyone.”
According to the lawsuit, Smith was offered a job by Hooters, which bills itself as “delightfully tacky, yet unrefined,” while dining at the Roseville restaurant in 2008.
Two years later came the discipline by the restaurant’s general manager, Robert Rice; assistant manager, Phil Petrella; corporate human resources manager, Patricia Kellner; and corporate employee coordinator, LaTosha Robinson.
The court case was assigned to Circuit Judge Peter Maceroni. The civil complaint does not name a damage amount sought, other than the typical Circuit Court standard of more than $25,000. Smith is seeking a judgment against the company for lost wages and emotional distress, due to information about the probation leaking out to co-workers and customers.
She has hired the Sam Bernstein law firm, based in Farmington Hills, which will have to prove that her treatment was improper, though she was an “at will” employee, a status which gives employers wide latitude to discipline or dismiss a worker.
Her lawyers have hired a public relations firm, Tanner Friedman, which issued a press release alleging that Hooters violated Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. That law is unique among the 50 states because it specifically bans employers from discriminating based on weight or height.
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