Whataburger sued by feds for allegedly discriminating in hiring practices

The U.S. EEOC is suing Whataburger for allegedly retaliating against an employee in Florida for refusing to only hire white employees. (KEYE, File)

AUSTIN, Texas (KEYE) - The United States Equal Opportunity Commission is suing Texas-based restaurant chain Whataburger for allegedly retaliating against a store manager in Florida who refused to only hire white employees.

In the suit, Vanessa Burrous says she was pressured by management at a Whataburger in Tallahasse, Florida to hire only white employees.

The suit, filed in Florida, alleges that Burrous' direct supervisor told her "to review the names on applications, identify those names that sounded white, and to interview only those applicants."

Burrous says she ignored the directive and in April 2015 conducted open interviews of online applicants, hiring eight crew members - seven of whom were black.

The EEOC claims this "infuriated" Burrous' supervisor who "repeatedly reprimanded" Burrous for not obeying her hiring directives.

In a meeting with an area manager for Whatabuger's five Tallahassee restaurants about the issue with Burrous' immediate supervisor, the suit claims the manager told Burrous that Whataburger's “customer base is white and we want the faces behind the counter to match the customer base” and that if Burrous complained further, she would not be "protecting the brand."

The EEOC's lawsuit claims that Burrous was subjected to retaliation after refusing to follow the company's "racially discriminatory hiring directive," including significantly increasing her workload, ordering her to work on her scheduled days off without pay, and changing her schedule to overnight shifts.

The lawsuit contains an undated letter of resignation submitted by Burrous, which states in part:

Unfortunately, this resignation is due to the extremely hostile work environment and constant harassment I have endured. I reported to upper management that I had been asked to commit unethical and illegal acts of racial discrimination when making hiring decisions. There has since been an increasing and ongoing effort to retaliate and harass me. I have suffered endless gossip, threats, and abuse, both verbal and emotional, making the work environment intolerable for a reasonable person. I can no longer suffer the effects this abuse is having on my self esteem, my confidence and my sense of self-worth.

According to the suit, the EEOC is seeking a permanent injunction to force Whataburger to pay Burrous damages and back pay. It also looks to force the company to institute policies that protect employees from retaliation for refusing to racially discriminate in their hiring practices.

In a statement released to CBS Austin late Monday evening, Whataburger denied the allegations in the EEOC's lawsuit:

Based on our thorough internal investigation, we deny the allegations. We did not retaliate against this employee nor did we ask her to use the alleged discriminatory hiring practices. We value diversity on our teams and proudly employ Family Members of all races. Approximately 75 percent of our workforce identifies as non-white.

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