Workers came and went, and Helen Jones taught them the ropes of the salad bar she tended for nine years at a Shoney's restaurant in Louisville, Ky.. Then she watched them move up, to posts as kitchen manager and beyond. They were white. Jones was black.
Managers passed her over for promotion. They humiliated her with racial slurs they said were just a joke. The company's founder and one-time chief executive used such language too, according to court records. He was known throughout the company for admonishing his restaurants to stop hiring blacks. The restaurants, he would say, were "too dark."
Yesterday, Jones, 57, reveled in a victory that she is sharing with thousands of other blacks in a landmark race discrimination settlement against Shoney's Inc. that will bring the highest award, $105 million, ever paid by a company accused of racial bias. Civil rights lawyers who worked on the case say this victory of kitchen help over corporate executives sends a message that systemic race discrimination in the workplace can be costly.
"I would get so disheartened," said Jones. "Now I feel like I'm somebody on the job." Two years ago, after the class-action suit was filed, Jones was promoted to kitchen manager too.
The settlement, contained in a consent decree approved in federal court in Florida last week, also mandates that Shoney's adhere to detailed equal opportunity policies and practices, including complaint processes and hiring and promotion goals. The company will be under court supervision for 10 years to combat what lawyers for the black workers said was entrenched discrimination throughout the company's 759 restaurants in 35 states.
Others restaurants owned by Shoney's Inc. which are affected are Captain D's Seafood, Lee's Famous Recipe Chicken, Pargo's and the Fifth Quarter.
The class of plaintiffs covered by the settlement includes about 40,000 current and former employees, plus some job applicants. About 1,000 restaurants that are Shoney's franchises were not part of the settlement.
In their complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Pensacola in 1989, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund lawyers listed 211 Shoney's officials against whom there was direct evidence of discrimination. They ranged from restaurant managers to the former chief executive officer, Raymond L. Danner, who remains a board member.
Danner, now 68, founded the first Shoney's Big Boy restaurant in 1959 in Madison, Tenn.
The company held that name until 1976, when it became Shoney's Inc. The purchase of several smaller restaurant chains expanded Shoney's empire to 1,800 restaurants.
Danner remained the chief executive officer of the Nashville-based chain until 1986, when he transferred leadership to J. Mitchell Boyd. Danner retained some oversight as a senior member of the board of directors.
When he was running the company, Danner was so adamant about holding down the number of black employees that managers hid blacks "from view, including an instance where a black employee was told to hide in a restroom, when he paid them visits, according to court records. Employment applications were color-coded to separate blacks from whites, and blacks, if hired, were tracked into kitchen jobs so they would not be seen in the dining areas. The suit also alleged that blacks were fired indiscriminately.
"This was going on while the Bush administration and others were telling the country that in the area of civil rights, the major problem was quotas and unfair protection for blacks," said Kerry Scanlon, one of the NAACP lawyers. "The quota that African Americans are most familiar with in employment is zero."
Shoney's agreed to settle to avoid a protracted legal battle, a spokeswoman, Sandy McCaffrey, said. In settling, it does not admit violations of civil rights law, but stipulates that the agreement's terms are "proper and appropriate."
Scanlon confirmed published reports that Danner, a major shareholder, has agreed to contribute stock valued at $65 million toward the settlement fund. Danner would not comment.
Beyond the monetary awards in the form of back pay and damages, the company also will pay the plaintiff's legal fees.
Other companies should be put on notice by this settlement that discrimination in their midst can be successfully litigated, said Thomas Warren, a Tallahassee attorney who handled the case.
"The amount of money that we're talking about here is real money to medium-sized corporations," said Warren. "They've got to say let's take a look at our employment practices and make sure that we're in total compliance with the fair employment laws because we don't want what happened to Shoney's to happen to us."
The case began in 1988 when two white managers from a Captain D's restaurant in the Florida Panhandle contacted Warren and told him they had been "pressured by their supervisors" to limit the number of black employees. When they resisted, the managers were "ultimately terminated," he said.
Warren discovered a pattern of race discrimination and harassment at the restaurant chain. Some of the problems were contained in numerous Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints -- including Jones's.
Back pay awards in the case will depend on length of employment and could range from $5,000 to $100,000.
Helen Jones, who started at the salad bar, is among those receiving the highest award.