Whataburger sued over alleged racial discrimination

A former manager of the Whataburger in Tallahassee alleged she was retaliated against and forced to resign because she would not carry out racially discriminatory hiring practices as directed by higher-ups.

Her allegations are contained in a federal lawsuit filed Friday by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the Texas-based fast-food chain.

The former employee, Vanessa Burrous, filed a complaint with the EEOC alleging Whataburger violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination because of race. Before filing the lawsuit, the EEOC found reasonable cause to believe Whataburger retaliated against her and caused her to quit.

According to the lawsuit, Burrous, who is white, was pressured by the restaurant’s general manager to hire white employees but not black ones. Among other things, the general manager, Johanna Risk, directed her to review applications and only interview applicants who had white-sounding names.

“Ms. Burrous opposed and refused to participate in the racially discriminatory hiring directive to hire white — not black — applicants,” the lawsuit says. “Instead, Ms. Burrous continued to hire the most qualified applicants for vacant positions, regardless of race or color.”

Around April 2015, Burrous conducted open interviews of applicants and hired eight crew members, seven of whom were black. That “infuriated” Risk and intensified her anger against Burrous, leading to repeated reprimands against her.

About a month later, Burrous and Risk met with Misa Levin, the area manager over Tallahassee’s five Whataburger locations. Levin “angrily” told Burrous that Risk was not solely responsible for the discriminatory directive and that it was Levin herself who gave the directive based on pressure from “upper management.”

“Levin told Ms. Burrous that Whataburger’s ‘customer base is white and we want the faces behind the counter to match the customer base,’ ” the lawsuit says. “Levin said she hoped the meeting would 'put the fire out.' She warned Ms. Burrous that if she complained further she would not be protecting the brand.”

Levin also threatened to use past mistakes of Burrous, none of which had been previously subject to discliplinary action, “if she persisted in exposing Whataburger’s racially discriminatory hiring directives,” the lawsuit says.

Risk subjected Burrous to emotional and verbal abuse, increased her workload, reprimanded her for mistakes of other managers, ordered her to work on days off without pay and changed her schedule to overnight shifts, according to the lawsuit.

Burrous herself described “an extremely hostile work environment” and “constant harassment” she endured in a resignation letter.

“I have suffered endless gossip, threats and abuse, both verbal and emotional, making the work environment intolerable for a reasonable person,” she wrote. “I can no longer suffer the effects this abuse is having on my self-esteem, my confidence and my sense of self-worth.”

The EEOC asked for a permanent injunction preventing Whataburger from engaging in retaliation against workers who refuse to participate in racial discrimination. It asked that Whataburger be ordered to enact policies, practices and programs that provide equal employment opportunities for workers who refuse to participate in racial discrimination.

The federal agency also demanded that Whataburger make Burrous “whole” by giving her back pay, reinstating her if feasible and paying her punitive damages “for its malicious and reckless conduct.”

Whataburger was contacted for this story but did not immediately provide a statement.

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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