PITTSBURGH — A white man claims he was fired as manager of a suburban Panera Bread shop for repeatedly having a black man work the cash register instead of putting him in a less visible location and having "pretty young girls" be the cashiers.
Scott Donatelli contends in a federal lawsuit he was denied extra medical leave and was fired in September after double hip replacement surgery earlier this year. He claims the reason was that he bucked race-related personnel rules communicated to him by a district manager for Sam Covelli, a franchisee based in Warren, Ohio, about 80 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.
Earlier this year, Donatelli says, the district manager told him, "It's what Sam wants and what our customers want. They would rather see pretty young girls" at the cash register.
The district manager also "told Donatelli he did not want African Americans working where the public could see them because: 'it's what the customers want,'" according to the eight-page complaint filed late Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh.
Donatelli is seeking back pay, reinstatement and damages. His complaint names only Covelli Enterprises as a defendant. According to its website, Covelli is the fifth-largest restaurant franchisee in the country and develops and manages the franchise rights of nearly 200 Panera cafes in northeast Ohio, western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and West Palm Beach, Fla.
St. Louis-based Panera Bread Co., which offers freshly baked bread, sandwiches and soups in a sit-down setting for slightly higher prices than those at most fast-food chains, says on its website it has about 1,500 company-owned and franchise-operated bakery-cafes in 40 states and in Ontario, Canada, under the Panera Bread, Saint Louis Bread Co. and Paradise Bakery & Cafe names. A company spokeswoman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Covelli spokesman Allen Ryan issued a one-paragraph statement saying the Ohio company "vigorously denies the allegations" in a copy of the lawsuit e-mailed to him by The Associated Press.
"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."
The black employee is not identified in the lawsuit. Donatelli's attorney, Samuel Cordes, said he's not even sure the black man is aware of the controversy.
"The facts in our case will bear it out: This is a pattern," Cordes said, adding that he's fielded similar complaints from other Covelli Panera employees in the area but never before sued as a result.
Donatelli, 49, said he was hired as an assistant manager of the store in the upscale suburb of Mount Lebanon in March 2007 and became its general manager in August 2010.
That summer, Donatelli said, the district manager exclaimed, "What is that?" when he saw the black employee walk in to start his shift.
"Sam would (expletive) if he got a look at that," the district manager said, according to Donatelli.
Over the course of several months, Donatelli contends, the district manager repeatedly chastised him for letting the black man work the cash register and interact with customers even though he was "one of the better employees with a great work ethic, attitude and willingness to do whatever is asked of him."
Donatelli said the district manager told him the black employee's work abilities "won't matter to Sam" and said, "You know, that is a death sentence for me and you if Sam would walk in and see him on register."
The lawsuit acknowledges that Donatelli took medical leave for his surgeries from June 7 to Sept. 7, when he got a return to work prescription from his doctor. Donatelli said that he was informed Sept. 7 that he was being replaced as general manager and that when he worked the next day he realized he wasn't fully healed and needed another month off.
Instead, Donatelli got a letter saying he was fired for exhausting his time off under the federal Family & Medical Leave Act, the lawsuit said.
The U.S. Department of Labor's website says the act entitles eligible employees to take up to 12 workweeks of "unpaid, job-protected leave" within any 12-month period.