To celebrate our 40th anniversary in 2017, Virginia Legal Aid Society is telling 40 stories that reflect our history, our people and the cases and events that have made the past 40 years so memorable. These will be released over the next 40 weeks, finishing at our gala celebration on November 17 in Farmville at the Moton Museum.
In part I of this story, Anne – whose name has been changed to protect the identity of both her and the restaurant she worked for – was demoted for what clearly appeared to be racial reasons. She quit and told Virginia Legal Aid Society that the restaurant’s management frequently asked about the percentage of white and African American employees at the location she managed.
“My mouth almost dropped open,” VLAS attorney Pam Fortune said. “I thought somebody must have misunderstood. I couldn’t imagine what her employer had done was that blatant.”
Pam, who grew up near Danville, had joined the Farmville office of VLAS shortly after passing the Virginia Bar exam – her first full-time job as a lawyer. Pam continues to work for VLAS out of the Farmville office.
Before Anne told Pam her story, Pam had never encountered a case where race was front and center. She had worked plenty of unemployment, landlord-tenant and consumer cases, among others, and occasionally a client would mention that race might have played a role in the situation.
But Anne’s case was an entirely different matter. In Anne’s store and at least one other she knew, Anne said the managers were asked occasionally to fire African American workers, or reduce their hours to get them to quit, to maintain a 70% white, 30% African American mix of workers.
“What kind of person thinks like that, to ask people to have racial quotas to match the outside population?” Pam wonders today. “What kind of person would think the community wants this and would blatantly ask his employees to do this?”
Pam appealed Anne’s denial of unemployment benefits to the Virginia Employment Commission. While she was preparing the case, Pam took an unusual phone call. A nationally famous author was on the other line, not so subtly trying to get her to drop the case. He knew the restaurant owner and assured Pam the owner was a nice man.
Pam politely let him know that she would proceed.
Pam argued the case at the Virginia Employment Commission in Richmond. Despite the stark racial issues, the legal arguments were fairly straightforward: Virginia workers who quit their jobs aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits, with a few exceptions. Since the job Anne was offered was not suitable because it was a demotion with lower pay, the demotion was made with discriminatory intent, and she had no avenue of appeal inside the company, Anne was found eligible to receive benefits.
Anne won the case and began collecting unemployment benefits, but her story didn’t end there. Separately, she filed a discrimination case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Pam didn’t handle the EEOC case. Such cases can generate a reasonable fee for a private attorney, so VLAS did not have to step in.
Pam kept in touch with Anne and learned later that Anne was happy with the settlement she received from the EEOC case. Anne was able to find work at another local restaurant – as a manager.