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Attorney calls it a landmark case for workers rights
Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider
By Robin Ruehlen, C & G Staff Writer
May 26, 2010
ROSEVILLE — Although the Hooters of America Inc. website describes the company as “very protective of its girls and its brand,” one Roseville employee is turning up the heat on the company after she alleges she was put on probation, shamed and humiliated by the franchise’s management because of her weight.
Cassandra Smith, 20, of Roseville filed a civil lawsuit against the company in Macomb County Circuit Court on May 24 following her May 14 employment evaluation.
Smith, who attends Macomb Community College and hopes to major in elementary education, had been a Hooters Girl for two years and, she says, was actually recruited to work at the Roseville location on Gratiot Avenue while dining there. The lawsuit claims she was “admonished, disciplined and counseled” by supervisors about the fit of her uniform, and told to join a gym in order to lose weight and improve her looks within 30 days, or face termination.
The Hooters Girl uniform consists of orange short-shorts, a white Lycra tank top with the Hooters name and logo, and pantyhose.
Smith’s attorney, Richard Bernstein, said the Atlanta, Ga.-based company is in direct violation of the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employee discrimination based on weight.
“This is a landmark case — a case that will determine once and for all that an employer cannot use physical appearance to determine continued employment,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein said Hooters is attempting to classify its employees as performers rather than waitresses in order to discriminate.
“It’s a misclassification of workers, and big corporations do this constantly,” he said. “They create clever little names and titles for their employees, and that’s how they get around the laws that protect workers. Hooters is brazenly flaunting the law.”
Smith, who at 5 feet 8 inches tall and 132.5 pounds wears an “extra-small” size uniform, said she was actually 145 pounds at the time she was hired. According to the lawsuit, the only sizes of Hooters Girl uniforms are extra-extra small, extra small and small.
Smith alleges the “weight probation” status was also disclosed to fellow co-workers and others, which produced an “intensely humiliating, untenable employment environment.” She is suing Hooters for over $25,000 to cover lost wages, emotional distress and court costs.
Hooters of America said it had not yet been served with the lawsuit, but stated that “no employee in Michigan has been asked to lose weight and that the company does not enforce any weight requirement.”
Bernstein countered, saying, “They have certainly been served with the lawsuit, because they are commenting about it all over the news.’
Vice President for Marketing Mike McNeil said he is “somewhat perplexed” by the story, as well as Smith’s claims about the state of her employment.
“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,” McNeil said. “Hopefully we will begin to get some clarity on the matter in the near future.”
Bernstein said what happened to Smith is considered to be “constructive termination” — essentially, when an employer creates a hostile work environment that becomes virtually intolerable for an employee.
In a corporate statement, the company claims to hire individuals who it deems best fit the image of an “All-American Cheerleader/Girl Next Door.”
“Occasionally, the company does challenge employees about their image. This happens no more than a few dozen times each year out of the more than 17,000 Hooters Girls worldwide,” the statement reads.
“In each case this is done in a positive, supportive way and the employees are offered advice on achieving an image in keeping with the one Hooters has established, and to which they agreed upon hire.”
Hooters Girls are also required to attend “image classes and workshops” and take an “image quiz” to test their understanding of the company’s image standards, and must sign a pledge to “uphold the Hooters Girl image.”
Hooters of America claims it has never before been sued for weight discrimination, “does not have a weight requirement, nor does it discriminate against anyone based on weight.”
Bernstein, who is blind, said he has spent his career in the field of civil rights law. He added there is no ambiguity whatsoever to the Elliott-Larsen law regarding discrimination based on weight or appearance.
“One of the ironies of this case is that Cassandra’s attorney is blind — but I think sometimes blind people are able to see things a little more clearly than everyone else,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein said since this case hit the news, his firm has received calls “left and right” regarding similar stories of discrimination by Hooters.
“Employees can start at age 17, so you have high school seniors working in this environment and starving themselves,” he said.
“The Hooters managers are not medical professionals, and they are creating a very unhealthy environment for young women. Hooters has no defense: The Elliott-Larsen Act cannot be more clear.”
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