10/04/2011 10:42 am ET Updated Dec 04, 2011

Texas Roadhouse Restaurants Accused Of Widespread Age Discrimination By EEOC

WASHINGTON -- If older job seekers have had a particularly rough time finding work during the economic downturn, they apparently haven't found any refuge at Texas Roadhouse restaurants. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced Monday that it's suing the Kentucky-based chain of more than 350 eateries for allegedly turning away older job applicants because of their age, sometimes in brutal fashion.

Among the lines that managers have delivered to job seekers, according to the lawsuit:

  • "We think you are a little too old to work here. ... We like younger people."
  • "We're hiring for greeters, but we need the young, hot ones who are chipper and stuff."
  • "You seem older to be applying for this job."

In its suit, the EEOC alleges that Texas Roadhouse has discriminated against people over 40 years of age who've applied for front-of-the-house jobs such as waiter or host, stating that a mere 1.9 percent of the employees holding such positions fall into that age group. The agency describes that rate as "well below" the percentage of such workers at other restaurant chains. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects workers over 40.

Although the investigation was carried out by the agency's Boston office, the EEOC describes the hiring pattern as "nationwide" and stretching back at least to January 2007.

In a statement, Texas Roadhouse spokesman Travis Doster said, "We deny the EEOC’s allegations and are prepared to defend against these claim in court. Texas Roadhouse remains committed to offering equal employment opportunities and accepts applicants of all ages, regardless of age."

According to the lawsuit, a PowerPoint presentation designed for training Texas Roadhouse managers included a slide that read, "Step 1. Know what a [front-of-the-house employee] looks like," and that was followed by a group photo of "young people shouting and making gestures." The suit goes on to say that "all of the images of employees in Defendants' training and employment manuals are of young individuals."

Texas Roadhouse, which opened its first location in Indiana in 1993, bills itself as a family restaurant specializing in steaks and ribs, where servers and other staff are known to line-dance on the wood floor. The "Our People" page on the company's website features a photo of six apparently college-age women in waitstaff attire and two young men in a kitchen.

"It is important in this difficult economic climate that we redouble our nation's commitment to the principle of nondiscrimination in the workplace," said P. David Lopez, the EEOC's general counsel, in an Oct. 3 statement. "As a national law enforcement agency, the EEOC will vigorously protect the rights of job applicants to ensure that hiring decisions are based on abilities, not age."

The slow economic recovery has not been kind to older Americans. Those over 55 years old who find themselves out of work have been twice as likely as younger people to remain jobless for 99 weeks or longer. In August, the over-55 crowd spent on average 10 more weeks looking for new jobs than their younger counterparts did.

The EEOC has seen a rise in the number of age discrimination complaints filed since the economy soured. At the same time, the burden of proof has become greater for the complainants, thanks in part to a Supreme Court decision that says workers must prove age discrimination was the overriding factor leading to the unfair employment decision.

Correction: The originally version of this story mistakenly stated that the 1.9 percent figure was "'well below' the percentage of over-40 workers toiling in Texas Roadhouse restaurants generally." In fact, the EEOC comparison was to the general population, not the restaurants' workforce.

READ the EEOC's lawsuit:
Texas Roadhouse