EVERETT —There’s something striking about Texas Roadhouse, and it isn’t the fried pickles or mediocre ribs.
The people who work here are all super young. On a Saturday night at this mobbed outpost of the national chain, scores of servers in “I heart my job” T-shirts ferry giant trays of heart-stopping food and line-dance on the hour. None of them appear older than 30, and most look as if they’re barely out of high school. Where are all the grown-ups, pardner?
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, this glaring age divide has been a persistent feature in the company’s hundreds of restaurants across the country.
In a case that just concluded in federal court in Boston, the EEOC argued that Texas Roadhouse routinely discriminated against older job applicants, rejecting them in favor of younger ones who more closely matched the photos of joyful undergrads that fill the company training materials.
The commission amassed damning evidence. Dozens of workers told tales of applying for jobs at various Roadhouses and being brushed off or, worse, quizzed on whether they had enough energy for the job or how they felt about working with young people. Some who applied for front-of-house jobs were told they weren’t perky enough for the company, were urged to look around the room to see why they wouldn’t fit in, or were simply told flat out that the company preferred younger employees.
Post-it notes appended to their applications read “old ’n’ chubby,” or “middle age . . . Doesn’t really fit our image.” A 41-year-old who somehow snuck through said she was called an “old hag.” A 26-year-old was told she wouldn’t have been hired if the manager had realized she was so far beyond 21. One employee testified that a human resources director admitted to the ageism, saying: “Did we do it? Of course we did it. All you have to do is walk in the front door . . . and see what people look like.”
Over the decade covered by the lawsuit, only 1.6 percent of front-of-house employees were over 40. Census data suggest that number should be 18 percent.
For most members of the eight-person jury, the commission proved its case, according to the jurors I spoke with. But they said two holdouts — both men, which may or may not be a coincidence — were either skeptical that the discrimination was systemic or didn’t believe that what Texas Roadhouse was doing was wrong. Neither of them returned my calls.
The case ended in a mistrial on Feb. 3. A new trial will begin on May 15.
But when it starts anew, it will be in an America where Donald Trump is president and where Washington seems hell-bent on helping corporations avoid responsibility for shady behavior.
As it is, the EEOC got piles of grief for bringing the Texas Roadhouse case in the first place. Former general counsel David Lopez was hauled over the coals twice by outraged Republican members of Congress — most notably by Rand Paul, a senator from Kentucky, where Texas Roadhouse is based. In 2014, he accused Lopez of going against “everything America stands for” for bringing the suit when no one had formally complained.
“I don’t understand how you wouldn’t resign immediately and say this is abhorrent,” Paul demanded of Lopez. Got that? It’s the lawsuit he found abhorrent.
Lopez pointed out that it’s hard for one rejected applicant to see a nationwide pattern of discrimination. But it didn’t matter. In that hearing room, as in today’s White House, corporations are the victims.
“Not one person who questioned me showed any empathy or any concern about discrimination against older workers,” Lopez, now a partner at D.C. firm Outten & Golden, recalled in an interview.
It seems strange, given the GOP’s claim to be the party of the struggling worker, but also sadly predictable in these upside-down times. Something tells me it’s going to be a long, rocky road before things get better — if they do at all.
Saddle up, older folk.