By Mrinal Gokhale
Yasmine Outlaw is a 21- year-old college student who worked at Beans and Barley, a Milwaukee restaurant, as a busser this past summer. After having patronized the small local business for some years, her experience when working there did not go as she expected.
“A server once called me ‘ghetto,’” she recalled. “Another employee once randomly asked me, ‘What are you mixed with?’ and got defensive when I said it’s not her business.”
Outlaw also said she observed some employee segregation, being the only person of color working at the store’s front.
“Most dishwashers are African-Americans, and most pastry bakers are Latinos. They all work in a back room that is sectioned off,” she said. “I was the only person of color working up front.”
She noted that new hires got both hostess and busser training. However, she said she received only busser training and had a hard time getting clear answers as to why.
Outlaw said that she feels like she was unfairly fired for calling in late.
However, the owners of Beans and Barley recall a different story and deny the allegations.
“Yasmine didn’t report getting called ‘ghetto’ until after she was fired,” said co-owner Peggy Silverstini.
“If we would have known, we would have addressed it through our anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy.”
She added they don’t prohibit employees of color from working at the front of the restaurant. Silverstini declined to comment on Outlaw’s performance and termination per company policy.
Although it is unclear what really happened, the sort of workplace discrimination Outlaw alleges is more common than some might think in Wisconsin.
“I get calls almost daily regarding workplace discrimination lawsuits,” said James Hall, attorney and former Milwaukee NAACP president.
Hall has practiced law for 35 years and was involved in a 1990s lawsuit against the City of Milwaukee Fire Department for failure to hire and promote firefighters of color.
“The group received monetary relief and we helped effect changes to the written exam to become firefighters and the academy’s policies to add more diversity,” he said.
Hall said he believes that workplace discrimination is a problem in the Milwaukee area, considering high black unemployment. A March study by the Economic Policy Institute found Wisconsin leading a list of black unemployment rates with a jarring 19.9 percent in 2014. That rate flies above the national average of 11.4 percent.
A Milwaukee woman who preferred to be called Melinda was also willing to speak out regarding workplace harassment. Melinda alleged that she has been discriminated against at three Milwaukee-area employers.
At one job, she was harassed for missing a coworker’s baby shower.
“A coworker once got angry at me and the three other employees of color for not attending her baby shower,” she recalled. “She asked me why no African- Americans attended, saying she ‘opened her home’ to us and asking if it’s against African-American culture to attend baby showers.”
She said that she reported the incident to her supervisor, who did nothing about it.
“I then went to the HR assistant who suggested I file an equity complaint, but I didn’t want to discuss it ever again.”
Although Melinda said she does not experience harassment in the unit she works at now with the same employer, she’s still impacted by the incident.
“I’m traumatized. I avoid eye contact with those women because I get a visceral reaction when interacting with them.” Although some don’t know how to report discrimination, Hall said there is a way.
“Discrimination complaints must be filed within 300 days with the Equal Opportunity Commission or the State of Wisconsin Equal Rights Division,” he advised.
Hall said that he consults and advises his clients to determine whether they should file a lawsuit or try to work things out.
“Not every situation is an actionable case since there are many sides to stories,” he began. “People should learn how to work through problems to adjust. Some people need counseling on social and coping skills.”
He added that it’s also important to talk to Human Resources staff when encountering problems, too.
“People shouldn’t tolerate blatant discrimination, but some don’t know that not everything leads to a complaint. Always know when to talk to Human Resources before taking further action,” he said.
He also said to consider the Employment at Will doctrine, which states that an employee can be terminated at any time without “just cause” and without any kind of warning. Sometimes employees hired for indefinite amounts of time are subject to Employment at Will.
“It’s one thing if an employer doesn’t approve of your clothes. But for a lawsuit, you must prove you’re treated differently due to race, sex, religion, nationality, creed, disability, age or one of the other protected grounds.” Hall has represented both individuals and groups of people in discrimination lawsuits. He said the two forms of relief include monetary relief and injunctive relief, where employers change their policies to reduce discrimination.