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Black workers hidden at Panera Bread, lawsuit says

A Castle Shannon man claims in a federal class-action lawsuit filed on Wednesday that he and other black employees at local Panera Bread restaurants were denied promotions and kept out of public view because of the franchise owner’s policies.

Guy M. Vines, 21, says in the lawsuit that he worked at the Panera in the Galleria mall in Mt. Lebanon from November 2009 to August 2011. His manager, Scott Donatelli, was repeatedly reprimanded for hiring him and refusing to hide him from view on days when Sam Covelli, owner and operator of franchise company Covelli Enterprises of Warren, Ohio, might visit the store, the lawsuit states.

Vines claims in the lawsuit that Covelli Enterprises relegated black employees to working in the kitchen and in other areas away from customers.

Donatelli of Scott filed his own lawsuit against Covelli Enterprises — which operates more than 150 of the bakery-cafes in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky and Florida, making it the nation’s largest franchisee of Panera LLC — in November. He claims he was fired for supporting Vines and because he has degenerative arthritis.

Company spokesman Allen Ryan said Vines never alleged racial discrimination during the two years he worked for the company and that Vines “became disgruntled over being reprimanded for violating company policies and walked off the job.”

Laura Beth Nielsen, a research professor for the American Bar Foundation and director of legal studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., said a 2010 study of federal employment discrimination cases filed between 1987 and 2003 shows that multiple plaintiffs is one of the main predictors of whether a discrimination claim will succeed.

Just adding a second plaintiff makes a significant difference, and class-action cases “tend to be far more successful” than individual claims, she said.

Ryan said Donatelli and Vines are making a “coordinated attempt” to get money out of the company and their claims are unfounded.

“Covelli plans to vigorously defend our cafes and all of our employees who adhere to company policies,” Ryan said. “Our company does not tolerate any form of discrimination in the workplace.”

Sam Cordes, the lawyer representing Donatelli and Vines, said he doesn’t know how big the class will be in Vines’ lawsuit.

It’s clear the company’s policy is “we don’t display people who are black, fat or ugly,” Cordes said.

In November, Nicole Hardina, 42, of Pine filed a federal lawsuit against Covelli Enterprises claiming she was fired from an assistant manager’s position because the company prefers younger women.

Ryan said the company has many employees older than Hardina, that she was fired based on job performance and that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that her claim was meritless.


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