After Shakita Moore clocked out every evening at the Jason’s Deli in downtown Chicago, where she worked as a food runner, she would stick around the restaurant for two or three hours, sitting at a table and trying to be, in her words, “low key.” Eventually, Moore would leave and find a late-night or 24-hour White Castle or Subway where she could eat and discreetly sleep in the back for a couple hours. “I know everything that’s open 24 hours,” she says.
From there, Moore might ride the Blue Line for a while with no set destination, or maybe sit and sleep for a few hours at the Greyhound Station. “I always have stuff planned out” to make it through the night, she explains. By morning, she would “go right back to Jason’s Deli like nothing happened” and clock in.
Moore, 20, has been homeless since she was 14. After staying in multiple shelters, moving around different cities in Illinois and Wisconsin, and working various jobs, her goal for this year was to finally save up enough money to get her own apartment.
When Moore got her job at Jason’s Deli in April, she saw it as a path out of homelessness. So when, she alleges, a coworker and a supervisor began sexually and racially harassing her, she was faced with an impossible choice: take the abuse and suffer in silence, or fight back and risk losing both her job and her chance to have a place to call home. Backed up by hundreds of fellow low-wage fast-food workers through a new labor union, Moore chose to fight.
The “Yes girl”
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless reports that there are over 105,000 homeless Chicagoans. Nearly 11,000 of them are, like Shakita Moore, youths aged 14 to 21. Last year, 13 percent of people served in Chicago homeless shelters had jobs, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors [PDF], while 33 percent had survived domestic violence.
When she was first hired at Jason’s Deli in April, earning the Illinois minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, Moore was carefully saving up for a place of her own. “One thing that I learned with raising myself is to budget and save money,” Moore says. “You always gotta have a job. There’s a difference between being homeless with no money and being homeless with some type of income.”
A report published earlier this year by the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows that a minimum-wage earner in Illinois would need to work 82 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom Fair Market Rent apartment. The study also said that in Cook County, a worker must make at least $18.58 an hour to rent a two-bedroom apartment.
“[Jason’s Deli] gave me full time hours and that’s what I really needed,” says Moore. She adds, however, that in order to save up enough for an apartment, “the only thing left I needed was to get a part-time job, ’cause my income wasn’t enough.”
Moore says that for most of the time she was at Jason’s Deli, only one coworker knew she was homeless. “I’ve had a lot of stuff happen to me from living up on the streets and I’ve just been quiet all my life. I just felt like it [was] best to keep stuff inside ’cause don’t nobody care.”
She explains that not knowing where she would lay her head at night and keeping her problems to herself made it extremely difficult to work at a quick-service restaurant downtown — a stressful environment where employees are expected to keep a positive attitude around often impatient customers. Nevertheless, she poured energy and enthusiasm into the job. “I told myself, ‘this is what I need right now. I’m not gonna let what I’m going through affect me making money.’”
While her official position at Jason’s Deli was food runner, Moore says she had numerous other responsibilities: “I did deliveries. I washed dishes. I was at the salad bar. I worked cashier. I was doing everything. That’s why I got [a 50-cent] raise. I was a Yes Girl.” In her first month, Moore says, the management at Jason’s Deli was so impressed they not only bumped her hourly wage to $8.75, but also nominated her for Employee of the Month.
An impossible choice
But by May, the situation had deteriorated. Moore says a male coworker started making sexual comments to her and wouldn’t stop. When she reported this to her direct supervisor, Moore says, he refused to address the situation. Instead, she alleges that over the course of the next several weeks, the supervisor — a white man — made a series of racist remarks.
Moore says that on two occasions, the supervisor told her he was “scared of black people.” She says that another time he made comments implying that African Americans are thieves. When she told him this was offensive, Moore says the supervisor replied, “I’m not racist. I bought a color TV.” Moore further alleges that at least twice, she heard this same supervisor tell her, “I want to punch you in the face” in moments of frustration.
Meanwhile, she says the sexual harassment from her male coworker continued, so she went to one of the restaurant’s general managers. Moore says the coworker later angrily confronted her in the kitchen, saying the manager had told him about her accusations. She felt betrayed that the manager had apparently named her as the accuser, rather than keep her anonymous. “I could see if [the manager] took it to HR [Human Resources] and said my name, but he just kept it a secret and told this coworker. We gotta work with each other and it was making me uncomfortable… Now I [was] in a messed up situation. I’ve been through this before in my life — abused or somebody putting me in the scare position.”
Moore says she was now telling herself, “I guess it’s not taken seriously if I say something about sexual harassment, so I’m not gonna open my mouth again, ’cause they made me feel bad.” Added to this, she says her supervisor’s alleged racist comments and remarks about punching her were driving her to tears. “It was really making me mad on the inside, but I couldn’t say nothing ’cause I didn’t want to lose my job.”
It was around this time, in late May, that one of her coworkers introduced Moore to an organizer from the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC), a union of fast-food and retail workers formed last November. WOCC is best known for waging the Fight for 15—a campaign to raise wages to at least $15 an hour — which is part of a national uprising of fast-food workers that has seen a half-dozen one-day strikes in cities across the country since late last year. The common demands of the strikes have been higher pay and the right to establish a union without employer intimidation. Hundreds of workers in Chicago staged a one-day walkout on April 24, and since then dozens more workers have joined the Fight for 15, including employees at Jason’s Deli.
When she first went to meet with the WOCC organizer, Moore says she was afraid it might get her in trouble with Jason’s Deli. “I was just gonna run out the other door,” she says, laughing. “But I [was] like, ‘You know what? This is probably gonna help me in the end.’… And the organizer, she made me feel that actually, people are out here that are caring and will help.”
‘With them, there was no winning’
In early June, Moore says, she called a meeting with her supervisor and one of the restaurant’s general managers to tell them how uncomfortable she was with the sexual and racial harassment. She says they tried to make her feel “delusional,” with her direct supervisor allegedly pretending that Moore had never reported sexual harassment to him. The manager, she says, told her, “Oh Shakita, you shouldn’t be uncomfortable because we gave you a 50-cent raise.” She says he also suggested giving her fewer hours, something she clearly did not want.
Moore says she came to work early the next day, June 4, prepared to file a formal complaint with the company’s HR department by filling out the proper paperwork. She says the general manager, however, tried to stop her by telling her that the supervisor she’d been having problems with was planning to move to another restaurant anyway, and before she could fill out the paperwork, it was already time to clock in. “With them, there was no winning,” says Moore.
Later that day, after some customers had been left waiting several minutes for their orders, Moore says the manager shouted at her and the other kitchen employees. Afterward, she says, she told the manager his shouting was offensive, but he simply yelled at her to get back to work.
At this point, Moore says, all the abuse had added up. “Any normal human being would’ve exploded.” She says walked away from the manager and mumbled something in anger. The manager, she says, immediately told her she was guilty of “insubordination” and ordered her to go home, threatening to call the police. “He knew what he was doing,” she says. “He had this all planned out.”
The next day, Moore was told not to come to work because she was on “investigative leave.” When she finally talked to someone from HR a few days later, they told her she had been terminated. She says the company seemed uninterested in hearing her side of the story.
WOCC quickly came to Moore’s side, demanding that Jason’s Deli reinstate her with full back pay, adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards sexual and racial harassment in the workplace, and then publicly report that policy. On June 20 and 24, dozens of WOCC members protested inside and in front of the downtown Jason’s Deli where Moore had worked.
On June 21, with help from WOCC attorney Barry Bennett, Moore filed a claim of unlawful dismissal with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Bennett says the charge “shows outrageous behavior by Jason’s Deli in tolerating sexual harassment and tolerating racial harassment by a supervisor.” He continues, “The part of her charge that is most shocking and disappointing is that when she brought this misconduct to management’s attention and asked management to do something about it, their response was to fire her.”
In a statement to Working In These Times, the company says Moore’s termination “resulted from a diligently investigated incident which is unrelated to her claims against Jason’s Deli” and that “we stand by our decision that the facts justified our course of action.” Jason’s Deli insists it “treats all of our employees with respect and dignity and has clear policies against discrimination and retaliation.”
At first, Moore says, she regretted her decision to stand up for herself because she assumed nobody would care. But the support she has received from the Fight for 15 campaign has given her a new sense of courage. “I was hearing, ‘Tons of people support you,’ but I didn’t actually see it. Then, when it was the day of the [first] protest and I seen everybody coming out supporting me, I actually felt comfortable. Like I felt I was doing something right.”
‘It’s just the principle’
Shakita Moore continues to spend her nights riding trains or sitting in 24-hour fast-food places. She still hopes to save up for an apartment. Once settled in a place of her own, Moore wants to be able to provide a home for her younger siblings — she is the second-oldest of twelve — who she says are living on the streets or in foster homes. “It’s up to me to be up on my feet so I can be able to get them,” she says. Long-term, Moore wants to go back to school and work in the medical profession, particularly as a pharmacist technician, because she says she wants to do “something beneficial.”
Moore says she will have to wait 90 to 120 days before the EEOC issues a decision in her case. While she is hoping to get reinstated with full back pay, she can’t afford to stay unemployed for up to six months and has started applying to other jobs. “I still want my job [at Jason’s Deli] back,” she says. “It’s just the principle. They know it wasn’t right. I know it wasn’t right.”
For Shakita Moore, standing up to the harassment she says she was facing at Jason’s Deli meant jeopardizing not only a paycheck, but a ticket out of six years of homelessness. But with the aid of her union, she decided to fight rather than be a silent victim. Now, after losing her job and her chance to save up for an apartment, she is unrepentant and unafraid. “I just feel comfortable with taking a stand and getting my job back,” she says.
Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State College in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.