Texas Roadhouse battles Obama officials over age discrimination suit

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The restaurant chain Texas Roadhouse is locked in a battle with the Obama administration over accusations of age discrimination. 

The chain — known for its line-dancing staff — is battling a 2011 suit from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that alleges the company does not hire workers over 40.

Backed by Republicans and the business community, Texas Roadhouse says the case follows a pattern in which the EEOC brings actions against private companies without anyone ever filing a complaint.

{mosads}Republicans on the House Education and Workforce Committee have scheduled a hearing on Tuesday aimed at drawing attention to what they say is a systemic problem at the EEOC.

“They’re going after businesses without having to show that there’s a problem,” said Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), a committee member and critic of the agency.

Industry groups argue that the EEOC should spend more time focusing on cases where there are formal complaints instead of pursuing charges independently. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) issued a report in November 2014 that found there are 70,781 backlogged cases at EEOC.

Speaking publicly for the first time on the issue, Texas Roadhouse CEO and founder W. Kent Taylor criticized the agency for targeting his restaurant chain.

“It’s time for the EEOC to turn the lights on — and explain to Congress why it chases no-complaint cases when there are over 70,000 cases of racial and other complaints of discrimination that are back-logged on and not acted on,” Taylor said.

Taylor blasted the agency for its “lack of transparency” and said the administration should “remind the EEOC” to be more transparent.

Asked about the case, Justine Lisser, a spokeswoman for the EEOC, would not comment on specific litigation. But she said the agency’s mandate under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “permits EEOC Commissioners to file charges even when there are no charges from members of the public.”

Groups such as the National Restaurant Association and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) are undeterred, and are pressing the EEOC to reevaluate its approach.

Joe Trauger, the NAM’s vice president for human resources policy, said the group is “concerned about the increasingly aggressive approach the EEOC is taking recently.”

“Accusing employers without a complaint … [is] not what the EEOC should be spending its time and limited resources on,” Trauger said.

Rep. Robert Scott (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, defended the EEOC, saying that it “exists because employment discrimination is real.”

“I think it is important to note that the EEOC has been effective in its good faith effort to conciliate the charges it has received, and less than 1 percent of those charges have gone to court,” Scott said.

Industry groups also criticize the EEOC’s process for bringing complaints and have questioned a pilot program that would use undercover agents to test a company’s hiring practices.

Lisser said every complaint brought by the EEOC goes through a thorough review and stressed that testers are not part of the process.

“We don’t use testers, either paid or unpaid, in litigation or any other part of our administrative process,” Lisser said.

The EEOC at one point had ordered a pilot program on the use of testers, allocating more than $200,000 to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) between September 2007 and June 2012. Lisser said the program was a pilot study. The testers apply for work to see whether they are discriminated against.

When asked about the program, Lisser said, “We cannot explain why that money was still on their books and unspent in 2012.”

An MCAD official couldn’t be reached for comment.

The business community has sparred with the EEOC for years, viewing it as an activist agency that meddles in the workplace.

In the 1990s, the EEOC opened a sex discrimination investigation of Hooters, a restaurant chain known for its provocatively dressed waitresses. The agency dropped the investigation after a storm of public criticism.

“The last time they came up with a great idea is when they sued Hooters for not hiring older males,” said a source close to Texas Roadhouse. “With a backlog of cases, don’t they have anything better to do?” 

— Updated at 11:04 a.m. on March 24.

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