NYC Server Says Applebee’s Operator Favors White Workers

This article was originally published in law360. Read it here.

By Caleb Drickey

Law360 (April 6, 2023, 6:44 PM EDT) — A Black server at a South Bronx Applebee’s franchise accused the New York restaurateurs of discriminating against dark-skinned workers by offering higher pay and encouraging tipping at locations staffed by predominantly white and light-skinned employees.

In a charge of race and color discrimination filed Wednesday with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, server and Columbia Law School student Justin Onwenu alleged that white workers serving white customers received better pay and working conditions despite holding identical duties to nonwhite colleagues in the outer boroughs.

Applebee’s franchisee “Apple-Metro provides Manhattan workers with greater financial security that is free from many of the degrading aspects of service work,” Onwenu said. “Apple-Metro does not provide this for workers in the Bronx on the basis of race and color.”

As a server at Apple-Metro’s South Bronx location, Onwenu said that he works with primarily Black and dark-skinned colleagues who all received tip-credited wages of $10 per hour, plus tips.

However, those tips were allegedly below industry standard. Onwenu said that despite receiving consistently positive feedback, the majority of his customers tipped less than 10% on top of their bill.

Meanwhile, at a pair of Midtown Manhattan Apple-Metro-owned Applebee’s locations, Onwenu said that teams of mainly white or light-skinned workers received wages of $15 per hour plus tips. At the Midtown locations, the server said, Apple-Metro lists a recommended 18% gratuity on each customer bill.

According to Onwenu, there was no legitimate business reason to provide white Manhattan-based staff with better base wages or to encourage better tipping by the restaurants’ clientele. Although he said he engaged in identical tasks to those performed by white, Manhattan-based colleagues in what he said was a highly profitable restaurant, Onwenu said he was denied upwards of $10,000 in wages and tips that he said would have been earned but for his race.

“It is demoralizing to me that Apple-Metro institutes an entirely different set of wage practices, pays me less and recommends tips on every bill as a matter of course in its Midtown Manhattan Applebee’s where the servers are predominantly light-skinned,” the server said.

Anjana Malhotra, counsel for Onwenu, said in a statement Friday that the company “has inflicted deep harm on workers of color in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as well as state and local labor laws.”

She also said that her client had been fired Wednesday in retaliation for filing his complaint with the EEOC.

“This is a textbook case of retaliatory firing, and we will be amending his charge to the EEOC,” Malhotra said. Representatives for Apple-Metro did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Onwenu is represented by Anjana Malhotra, Leah Lotto and Carmela Huang of the National Center forLaw and Economic Justice and Artemio Guerra of HKM Employment Attorneys LLP.

Counsel information for Apple-Metro was not immediately available Thursday.