Panera charged with racism

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Scott Donatelli, who was fired as the general manager of the Panera Bread cafe in Mt. Lebanon, has filed suit claiming the reason for his termination was that he would not abide by the racially discriminatory personnel policies of his employer, franchise owner Sam Corvelli.

His lawyer Sam Cordes said the policy was not reserved for just the Mt. Lebanon restaurant.

“There will be evidence presented that store managers were told, ‘we don’t hire anyone who’s fat, Black or ugly,’” he said. “The evidence we have is that this was standard policy and practice throughout the Corvelli empire.”

In his eight-page complaint filed Nov. 2 in the U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh, Donatelli said he was repeatedly reprimanded by his district manager for having an African-American male employee working the cash register instead of “pretty young girls.”

Donatelli also claimed the district manager said such violations of Corvelli’s policy on race would get them both fired, saying the Black employee’s work abilities “won’t matter to Sam” and that it “is a death sentence for me and you if Sam would walk in and see him on register.”

According to its website, Corvelli Enterprises of Warren, Ohio, owns about 200 Panera Bread bistros in western Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and in West Palm Beach, Fla., making Corvelli the fifth largest franchiser in the country.

Almost identical charges were filed against Corvelli in federal court in Cincinnati last year when store manager Robert McFarland claimed he was fired for hiring an African-American. And in 2003, Paul Anderson, manager of the Panera in Pittsburgh’s Oakland area sued after he said he was terminated for not “hiding” Black employees.

His complaint claimed Corvelli “engaged in intentional discrimination against African-American employees and terminated the Plaintiff solely and directly because he would not comply with this directive.”

When reached for comment, spokesman Allen Ryan noted that Corvelli does not own the Cincinnati store. He was not with the company in 2003 and has no knowledge of that lawsuit. Beyond that, he repeated his statement to Associated Press, denying the racial charges and saying Donatelli was let go for abusing medical leave time.

“Our company treats all employees the same, regardless of their race, sex, or national origin,” the statement said. “Mr. Donatelli’s termination was based strictly on his inability to return to work within the time frame set forth by the law. We look forward to showing his allegations as baseless as this case moves forward.”

Cordes said the company is between a rock and a hard place because either way, his client was wrongly terminated. The lawsuit concedes that Donatelli took off from June 7 to Sept. 7 to recover from double hip-replacement surgery.

When he returned to work, he was told he was being replaced as general manager. He also realized he wasn’t fully healed and asked for more time. Instead he was fired.

The Department of Labor says employees are entitled to “12 workweeks” of unpaid leave. Cordes said the company is also in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because it did not make any attempt to accommodate his degenerative arthritis, which is what led to the hip surgery.

But it wasn’t the sick leave that led to the termination, said Cordes.

“My client was reprimanded repeatedly, and told ‘doing things right is doing what Sam wants,’” he said. “People are loath to blow the whistle on employers, but after the AP story, lots of former employees contacted us. I have more than 10 people who’ve described behavior remarkably similar in stores throughout the system.”

The case has been assigned to U.S. Justice Terry McVerry. Cordes anticipates it will be about a year before the case gets to court.

(Send comments to cmorrow@new­pitts­burghcourier.com.)

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