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Bias complaint hits Outback

Female workers are denied kitchen jobs and promotions, U.S. case testimony says.

By SCOTT BARANCIK, Times Staff Writer
Published February 7, 2008


For years, American women who worked outside the home were told they belonged in the kitchen. But testimony recently made public in a government lawsuit against Outback Steakhouse claims the Tampa restaurant chain keeps its female employees out of the kitchen.

In a federal case filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2006, dozens of women who testified against Outback say managers steered them into "female" jobs such as hostess or cocktail waiter and away from kitchen work. It's a serious problem, the women argue, because kitchen experience is a key requirement for obtaining management positions at Outback.

The EEOC found that no women has been a kitchen manager at any of the 20 Colorado, Wyoming and Montana restaurants the lawsuit targets. All 37 staff promoted to that position locally from 2003 to 2006 were men. The joint venture partner in charge of the region, Thomas Flanagan, testified that the kitchen is the "engine room" of a restaurant.

Among the allegations made in depositions that became public last month:

- Victoria Eckenroth said she applied for a kitchen job at Outback's Colorado Springs, Colo., East location, but was told women weren't welcome because they couldn't lift heavy pots. Eckenroth later was denied a promotion to front-of-house manager because she lacked kitchen experience.

- Despite having kitchen experience, Jillian Lee was pulled after one salad shift at Outback's Billings, Mont., location and put on hostess duty. The store manager allegedly told her she couldn't return to the kitchen because the male workers found her "too distracting."

- The manager of Outback's Thornton, Colo., restaurant - like all but one in the region, a man - was more blunt. He allegedly told Anna Johnson that he didn't allow women to work in the kitchen.

Outback's lawyers dismiss such anecdotal testimony as "inadequate."

As for the fact that all 37 employees promoted to kitchen manager in recent years were men, Outback's hired expert found no evidence of gender bias. After all, the expert wrote, "the feeder jobs for this position ... were approximately 95 percent male over the relevant period."

Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.