It has been 57 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was a monumental law in its time, and it continues to help workers against mistreatment well into the new millennium. In 2021 these stories are as common as ever — earlier this month the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit against a Hillsborough County Applebee’s franchise for creating a hostile work environment that led to the employee quitting his job as a line cook.
What happened in Plant City?
In this specific case, the worker complained of disparaging comments based on both race and sexual orientation. Management dismissed his complaints and cut his hours before he ultimately quit the job. The Civil Right Act bans racial discrimination, and a Supreme Court ruling last year determined that the law applies to sexual orientation as well.
When does it go too far?
The term “hostile work environment” is vague, which often leads to confusion about what behavior may be legal but generally misguided in a workplace. For example, restaurant kitchens have a reputation for salty language that isn’t found in the front, customer-facing part of a restaurant. While there may be a long-established culture of questionable behavior, the Civil Rights Act is quite clear that targeting race, color, religion, sex (including orientation) and national origin are violations. When there is a clear pattern along these lines, workers have the right to seek compensation for damages. In the Applebee’s example cited above, management was aware of the issue and failed to act.
Nobody deserves a toxic work atmosphere and the toll can manifest in many ways that range from being fired to a lack of promotion opportunities. Besides lost income, there is a mental and emotional toll. Stress and trauma can cause physical ailments, illness and mental health concerns.
In the restaurant case we’ve given here, the line cook went to the EEOC to resolve matters. The EEOC is a government commission to oversee discrimination cases — but it is not the only way to do so. Government bodies move slowly. Covering the entire United States in 2020, the EEOC resolved 165 lawsuits and filed 93 more, which is undoubtedly a small percentage of the overall instances of discrimination at work.
Employers need to provide a safe workplace for employees, free of discrimination and hateful speech. And every worker has the right to fight for accountability when a company ignores or encourages illegal behavior.