A former server at a Chili's Grill and Bar restaurant in Phoenix has filed a discrimination complaint against the company, with the assistance of the ACLU of Arizona, for allegedly being denied a promotion because of the way she dressed.
Meagan Hunter, who is 35, says that she faced insensitive comments from her superiors about her clothing, which led her to quit her job working at the Chili's restaurant located near the Metrocenter Mall.
On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona filed a complaint on Hunter's behalf with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The complaint alleges that Hunter, who is gay, experienced sex discrimination in violation of federal and state civil rights law. The same complaint has been filed with Phoenix's Equal Opportunity Department, an ACLU spokesperson said.
Chili's denies the discrimination happened.
Hunter said it occurred during a company seminar in June she attended to become a certified shift leader, a step up from her position as a server. Afterward, her general manager told her that the clothes she wore at the seminar – a blue button-up shirt from the men's department, slacks, and boat shoes – were inappropriate in the eyes of his boss, the Chili's district manager.
She felt "appalled" when told by her superiors that she needed to wear more "gender-appropriate" clothing, she said.
Her clothes were seen as too baggy, the general manager said, according to Hunter. He took Hunter aside several weeks later and told her they really wanted to offer her the position, but there was a caveat, she said.
"He said, 'We're just concerned about one thing,'" Hunter recalled. "And I said, 'What's that?' He's like, 'Well, I don't know what you're gonna wear.'"
Hunter was confused.
"I said, 'Are you telling me that I need to have my breasts hanging out and have tight pants on in order to be successful in your company?'" she recalled telling him. "Because that's what he was insinuating."
According to Hunter, the manager said, "No, no, not in those words ... but we're really concerned about what you're going to wear if you become a manager here."
She asked why she couldn't wear a chef-style coat of the kind he wore, with his name and "General Manager" emblazoned on it. Her general manager told her she couldn't. "These are for boys," Hunter recalls him saying.
Disheartened by the exchange, Hunter handed in her time card and quit on the following day, July 25. Later that day, she received an apologetic voicemail from her general manager, who said that he hoped anything he said or did wasn't the reason she left. She didn't call him back.
"How I dress, what I wear, my sexual preference has nothing to do with my work ethic and how I perform at my job," Hunter told Phoenix New Times in an interview at the ACLU's office.
She had worked at the Chili's restaurant for about two years in several roles, including host and cook. Getting shut down for the promotion, Hunter said, meant the loss of two years of work in the restaurant industry, where employees are largely disposable and advancing takes time.
In a statement, Chili's said the company was "alarmed" by Hunter's allegations. Chili's does not tolerate discrimination in its restaurants, the company said.
Chili's said that Hunter "was not denied a promotion" but was identified as a high-potential employee and "offered the opportunity" to join the certified shift leader program.
"Feedback was given to her about our manager dress code guidelines, which apply to all managers regardless of gender identification or sexuality, but absolutely no mention was made of any need to conform to gender-specific clothing," the company said in a statement.
After she quit, Hunter heard about another disturbing comment made by her boss after it was relayed to her by a coworker, she said. Her former colleague told her that after Hunter was passed up for a promotion to bartender, the general manager said it was because "he didn't want a gay girl behind his bar," Hunter recalled.
The coworker didn't want to inform her of this comment at the time, Hunter said, because she didn't want to hurt her feelings. Shortly after she quit, Hunter filed a complaint through the ACLU of Arizona's website.
ACLU senior staff attorney Ria Tabacco Mar, who worked with Hunter to submit the EEOC complaint, said that they want to see Chili's take responsibility and ensure the kind of discrimination her client experienced can't happen at any of its restaurants.
"Her story resonated with all of us as illustrating the problem that women and LGBTQ people often face, where they are criticized for appearing too feminine but they also, in Meagan’s case, can be criticized for not appearing feminine enough," Tabacco Mar told Phoenix New Times by phone.
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The EEOC investigates complaints and determines whether discrimination has occurred.
Hunter, meanwhile, has moved on to another server job at a different restaurant. She's making less money now and working fewer hours, which has put her plans to buy a house on hold and made it more difficult to support her son as a single mom.
Her manager's words had a profound effect, she said.
"I felt like I had job security. I felt comfortable with my work performance in that company. And because of his actions, it kind of just fell apart," Hunter said.