Former cook at Westmoreland casino eatery alleges racial discrimination, harassment

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Apr. 27—A former line cook at celebrity chef Guy Fieri's American Kitchen + Bar filed suit with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying he was subjected to racial discrimination, harassment and workplace retaliation at the popular restaurant at Live! Casino in Westmoreland Mall.

Speaking at a protest in the mall parking lot Monday, Nate Ridley, 46, of East Pittsburgh said he was among the first employees hired at the eatery last fall and helped open the facility. Ridley, who is Black, said he left after management failed to address his complaints about a manager's use of a racial slur and later learned he was being paid $13 an hour when a white employee with less experience was making $15 an hour.

Representatives of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Pennsylvania, ROC-PA, a grassroots organization that seeks to empower restaurant workers, and a handful of supporters joined Ridley Monday to protest his treatment and present a petition with 3,200 signatures to restaurant management. Their petition, which they said they previously presented last month, asks the management of the restaurant and Live! Casino to:

—Raise wages of Black workers and provide back pay to compensate them for the unequal treatment.

—Implement mandatory racial sensitivity and equity training for all Guy Fieri's restaurants and Live! Casino management and staff.

—Acknowledge and review the working conditions not just at the Hempfield location but all Guy's American Kitchen + Bar locations to ensure fair practices are being upheld.

Ridley's complaint comes amid staff shortages at restaurants across the region. Those shortages prompted weekday closings at some short-staffed eateries, a flurry of help wanted signs and one Route 30 chain's offer of a $400 signing bonus and $14 an hour wages for new hires.

"Low wages, poor or no benefits and racial discrimination have been a problem for a long time in this industry, especially in the pandemic, when workers have been expected to put themselves on the front lines for very low wages," said ROC-PA spokeswoman Bobbi Linskens.

Spokesmen for Guy Fieri's and Live! Casino did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Ridley's complaints.

Ridley, who has 28 years experience in the food service industry, said he's now employed as a line cook at an Allegheny County country club, "making more than I was paid here."

He said he was thrilled to go to work at the Hempfield restaurant when he was hired late last fall.

"I'm a big fan of Guy's. I watched all of his shows. I took my resume with me to a hiring fair and I asked for more money, but they told me everyone was starting at the same rate. Then, I found out white employees with less experience were being paid more," Ridley said.

He said things began to go south in January when an angry manager yelled at another employee to turn his music down and used a racial pejorative.

"The day it happened, he stood right in front of me and said the 'N-word' and never even said he was sorry. He said it as easily as if he was asking for a side of ranch," Ridley said.

Kendra Gillcrest, a fellow former employee at the restaurant, said she, too, was there and heard her boss use the term.

Ridley said he reported the incident to the restaurant's human relations manager along with his two weeks' notice. He said he has since been told the manager no longer works at the restaurant.

Ridley and Gillcrest said they came forward along with representatives of ROC-PA in the hope that others will not be subject to such conditions on the job.

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, or via Twitter .