Suit Says Panda Express Fired Woman for Opposing Sexual Harassment
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Chinese fast food chain Panda Express violated federal law by firing a female employee for reporting sexual harassment by a co-worker at one of its San Jose locations, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a federal lawsuit announced today.
According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, Veronica Nava, who worked as a counter helper and cashier, notified her restaurant manager that a co-worker was engaging in sexually inappropriate behavior. Panda Express conducted an investigation and ultimately transferred the co-worker to another location. However, within five weeks of Nava complaining, and just days after the conclusion of Panda Express’s investigation, she was fired by that same manager, whom Nava describes as a friend of her alleged harasser.
Such alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual harassment or pregnancy) or national origin and protects employees who complain about such offenses from retaliation. After first trying to reach a voluntary pre-litigation settlement, the EEOC filed suit (EEOC v. Panda Express, Inc., Civil Action No. CV-10-4386-HRL) in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Jose Division, and seeks monetary relief, including emotional distress and punitive damages, on behalf of the woman retaliated against, in addition to injunctive relief to prevent a recurrence of this type of discrimination.
“I just wanted to do my job without having to put up with my coworker’s inappropriate behavior,” said Nava, the mother of two. “After I spoke up about something that I knew was wrong, management fired me.”
The EEOC’s San Francisco District Director Michael Baldonado said, “When an employee reports sexual harassment, a wise employer will view this as an opportunity to nip the problem in the bud. Punishing the employee who speaks up will only multiply your problems. First, you are failing your legal obligation to investigate and stop harassment. Second, you add the new offense of illegal retaliation. Third, you send a message to your entire workforce that an employee complains at his or her own peril. A workplace where employees are afraid to speak out against harassment can evolve into a toxic environment where harassment becomes the norm.”
William R. Tamayo, regional attorney for the EEOC’s San Francisco District, noted that the number of retaliation charges filed with the EEOC in fiscal year 2009 (33,613) was more than double the number of sexual harassment charges filed (12,696).
Tamayo added, “Obviously, retaliation is a significant problem. It is crucial that employees are able to stand up against harassment or discrimination without fear that the employer will punish them for speaking out. The EEOC will vigorously defend those employees against retaliation by their employer.”
According to company information, Panda Express operates approximately 1,200 cafeteria-style Chinese fast food restaurants in 37 states and Puerto Rico. It is wholly owned and operated by Rosemead, Calif.-based Panda Restaurant Group, Inc., which in turn is 100% owned by the Cherng Family Trust.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.