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RESTAURANT TAKES A TALL ORDER

On a visit to Miami last week I learned that the era of big government, far from being over, may be just catching its breath for a new attempt to impose itself as Big Brother or, in the case of a local restaurant, Big Sister.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was informed that Joe's Stone Crab restaurant, an 84-year-old family-owned Miami institution with 250 employees, had not hired any female "waitpersons" in four years. Without a formal complaint by any individual alleging discrimination, the EEOC used Census data to persuade U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Hurley that a state of discrimination against women exists at Joe's. Last July, after a 10-year battle between the restaurant and the EEOC, the judge ruled that even though Joe's employs some women, it isn't enough based on the number of women living in the area.

Furthermore, said the judge, if Joe's doesn't come up with a way to hire more women, he will stop the restaurant from hiring anyone until it spells out in a study to be approved by him the qualifications necessary to wait on tables. Judge Hurley issued a procedure for hiring future employees, including precise wording he wants used in "help wanted" ads and questions to be asked of every applicant about their experience and qualifications. Between 1991 and 1995, 19 of the 88 persons employed at Joe's were women. Attorneys for Joe's say they've never discriminated and that the numbers used by the court are not correct.

During the restaurant's annual hiring session, known as Roll Call, a retired Dade County judge was appointed by the court to monitor the event. With him as "observers" were an EEOC attorney, two industrial psychologists and two attorneys for Joe's. This sounds like one of those Third World elections that Jimmy Carter and his band of observers monitor to ensure there is no voter fraud.

At last week's Roll Call, women made up just 20 percent of the crowd, compared to 35 percent of last year's applicants. Each applicant was photographed, in compliance with another court ruling. Requirements include the ability to carry and balance heavy trays of plates that weigh 23.7 pounds. Jobs at Joe's are attractive because the pay for a seasonal job, October-May, is $30,000.

Joe's attorney, Robert Soloff, says the court has established "quotas by (using) Census (data.)" He insisted that federal civil rights law does not require employers to attempt to correct a discrepancy between the gender of its work force and the community in which a business operates.

"All you can do as an employer is to not discriminate when they show up," said Soloff. In the days when Joe's and its owners were a little younger, perhaps. But this is the '90s and your government will decide what discrimination looks like and prescribe the remedy.

This is not the first case of its kind and it won't be the last. The Hooters restaurant chain, which is famous for more than its Buffalo wings, paid $3.75 million to settle a class-action suit on behalf of men who were denied jobs. Hooters will be allowed to continue to employ voluptuous women and dress them in T-shirts and shorts, but men will be eligible for other positions.

This is material for stand-up comedy, not serious law. The drop in female applicants at Joe's this year might inspire the EEOC to go door-to-door in Miami and force women to apply for table-waiting jobs if numbers are of paramount importance. Remember, the government once required busing of students to achieve "racial balance," as set by Washington.

Meanwhile, the restaurant opened on Monday. Employees are wearing buttons saying "I'm U.S. Government-Approved."

Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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