Deli Worker Speaks Out Against Sexual Harassment and Racial Slurs

Jeff Schuhrke July 10, 2013

Shakita Moore says that she was fired from Jason's Deli after reporting sexual harassment and racial slurs to a manager. She has joined forces with the Fight for 15 campaign to get her job back and raise awareness about similar issues in the workplace.

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 has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke

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