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Black Sweetgreen workers allege racial discrimination at New York shops

Sweetgreen, the publicly traded salad chain that has said it wants to be the McDonald’s of its generation, was accused Thursday of fostering a hostile workplace in several of its New York City stores, where Hispanic managers allegedly discriminated against, harassed and demeaned Black employees.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday in New York Supreme Court in the Bronx, 10 plaintiffs accuse Sweetgreen and two general managers of creating an environment where Black workers were passed over for promotions, assigned less desirable shifts, subjected to double standards and insulted with a variety of slurs, whether directly or indirectly. All the plaintiffs are identified in the complaint as either African American or African American/Hispanic.

A spokeswoman for Sweetgreen responded to the complaint with a statement to The Washington Post: “At Sweetgreen, we are committed to diversity as well as a safe and inclusive workplace. We take these accusations seriously and do not tolerate any form of harassment, discrimination, or unsafe working conditions. We are unable to comment further on any pending legal matters.”

Co-founders Nicolas Jammet, Nathaniel Ru and Jonathan Neman — then a trio of young graduates from Georgetown University — opened their first location in 2007 in a former burger shop in the Georgetown neighborhood. It was their attempt to provide an alternative to the junk food and fast food that dominated at the time. Their concept, focused on freshly made salads with local produce, would go on to become the darling of the fast-casual industry, spawning dozens of locations around the country, including shops in California, Texas, Colorado, Georgia, Wisconsin, Florida, Illinois and other states.

Sweetgreen, which is based in Los Angeles, went public in November 2021, raising $364 million in its initial public offering. In an interview with CNBC’s “Squawk Box” at the time of the IPO, Neman said that “over time, we want to build a massive, global, iconic food brand. We like to say we want to build the McDonald’s of our generation.”

The company has had other controversies over the years. During the pandemic, Neman wrote a LinkedIn post, suggesting that obesity is the “root cause” of American health problems, including coronavirus infections. He suggested outlawing junk food.

“[Seventy-eight percent] of hospitalizations due to COVID are Obese and Overweight people. Is there an underlying problem that perhaps we have not given enough attention to?” he wrote in the post, which he later took down.

Thursday’s lawsuit alleges that several Sweetgreen stores in New York — the complaint focused mostly on three: stores in Midtown East, the Financial District and the Meatpacking District — were discriminating against and harassing Black workers. The suit includes numerous allegations in which Hispanic managers and workers used racial slurs and stereotypes to demean Black employees and even customers. Among the slurs alleged are “monkeys,” “bums,” “lazy,” “gorilla” and the regular use of the n-word.

“For example,” the lawsuit alleges about Hispanic workers in a Sweetgreen store in the Meatpacking District, “they would say about a Black employee, ‘This monkey don’t know how to toss the salad correctly.’”

Another plaintiff, who worked in a shop in the Financial District, claims she overheard a Hispanic manager and two employees, who were talking about opportunities for promotion at Sweetgreen: “These [n-word] think they’re going to move up. They’re not.”

A different plaintiff, who also worked at the shop in the Financial District, alleges that he was having a heated discussion with an employee when a Hispanic worker approached and allegedly said, “Someday somebody is going to f— you up, because you need to get f—– up.” When the plaintiff tried to complain to his Hispanic manager, the manager allegedly said, “Nobody’s perfect.”

Another plaintiff who worked in the Meatpacking District shop allegedly overheard a Hispanic employee berate a Black co-worker, calling him a “stupid little black boy” in Spanish.

The plaintiffs also alleged they were subjected to double standards: Black employees, they claim, might be written up for issues that Hispanic workers got away with, such as not wearing name tags or for calling out sick even though they followed company protocols. One plaintiff at the shop in the Meatpacking District claims managers allowed Hispanic employees to eat and relax while on the clock but not Black workers.

Black employees alleged they would sometimes try to complain to management or human resources but would have their concerns brushed aside or ignored. They claim Hispanic workers who used racial slurs and insulting language would not be disciplined. Sometimes, the Black employees allege, their Hispanic counterparts would instead be promoted over them or given preferential shifts. A plaintiff from the Financial District shop, who was not promoted as allegedly promised, accuses their manager of saying, “Hispanic people work harder than Black people.”

The lawsuit also alleges the general managers at the Midtown East and Financial District restaurants fostered a sexually charged workplace in which some female workers did not feel comfortable. The managers would make inappropriate comments or touch female employees inappropriately, according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs in this case are represented by Arenson, Dittmar & Karban, an employment litigation firm that specializes in discrimination and harassment in the workplace. One of the firm’s biggest cases was a wage theft lawsuit in which more than 100 car-wash employees eventually split $8.5 million, a figure that the New York Times called a “spectacular sum for a wage theft case.”

In its latest financial statement, Sweetgreen reported total revenue of $152.5 million for the second quarter of fiscal year 2o23, a 22 percent increase over the same period in 2022. The company also posted a net loss for the quarter of $27.3 million.

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