Cracker Barrel sued for discrimination–again

A gay woman in Londonderry, New Hampshire, has sued a Cracker Barrel restaurant, claiming that management did nothing after she complained of employees sexually assaulting her and making crude references to her sexuality. The woman, Bonnie Usher, joined the Cracker Barrel staff as a cook in 2000. In the complaint she filed with New Hampshire human rights commission, she says that she was denied better work shifts and promotions because she is a woman, that she was subjected to abusive language, was groped by a co-worker, and that a photo of the groping was hung on the wall of the restaurant’s employee area.

Usher was fired in 2004, and she is maintaining that the company fired her because she complained about mistreatment on the job. A spokesman for Cracker Barrel says the company was not aware of Usher’s complaints.

Bonnie Usher’s suit is interesting because it adds gender discrimination and sexual harrassment to a long list of employee complaints over many years. In the early 90’s, a Cracker Barrel memo, written by a company executive, was leaked. The memo stated that managers should fire employees who did not “demonstrate normal heterosexual values.” One lesbian employee, Cheryl Summerville, said the reason given on her separation papers was “Employee is gay.” Summerville’s Cracker Barrel was in Georgia, where there is no state protection for gay workers, so she was unable to take legal action against the company. There was a shareholder outcry against Cracker Barrel’s policy, and a decade-long boycott of the restaurant by gays and gay rights activists, leading to the addition of a non-discrimination clause in Cracker Barrel’s employee policies.

Then there was the matter of discrimination against African Americans. A civil rights investigation found that black diners in Cracker Barrel restaurants in seven states–about 50 Cracker Barrel locations–were segregated from whites in restaurant seating, seated after white customers who arrived later, and given inferior table service. Interviews with employees revealed that managers “often directed, participated in, or condoned the discriminatory behavior.”

In 2004, Cracker Barrel agreed to change its training and management practices to prevent discrimination against African American customers, though the company denied the allegations made against it. There were a hundred suits filed by individuals against Cracker Barrel, and–according to attorney Heidi Doerhoff–“They’re still fighting tooth and nail against all the private plaintiffs.”

Cracker Barrel’s Equal Opportunity Statement claims that “Cracker Barrel will not tolerate any form of discrimination, harassment or retaliation affecting its employees or applicants due to race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, age, marital status, medical condition, or disability.” Though any chain can undergo the misfortune of having one of its franchises dishonor the company’s non-discrimination policy, accusations–so far, all of them proven–against Cracker Barrel have been so numerous for so long that the addition of a new one does not speak well for the company’s desire to change its ways.