Fast food workers suffer lots of indignities. Making things worse, most of them barely make enough money to survive. It’s worse if you are trying to support a family while flipping burgers or in this case, spooning orange chicken glop onto a plate. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, keep reading.
A 23 year old Jennifer Spargifiore says she was sexually abused as part of a Panda Express “self-improvement” seminar. That’s right, she was told to strip in a class with other Panda Express management trainees.
According to her complaint, Jennifer started working at the Panda Express restaurant in Santa Clarita in August 2016. Her job duties included “working the counter as a cashier, ensuring customer satisfaction, ensuring store cleanliness, and closing the cash till at the end of the day.” Pretty boring stuff that you would expect in a fast food joint.
While Jennifer doesn’t say how much she was paid, we doubt it was much. Despite low wages, Panda Express wasn’t exactly an enlightened employer. She says that she was told to skip a family funeral and instead come in and work and wasn’t allowed to get sick.
Over the years, Jennifer kept moving up the fast food ladder. But in order to get a promotion, she was told that she would have to go through a training program put on by Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy. And this is where things go from bad to worse.
Jennifer signed up for the four day class in July 2019. And yeah, she paid out of her own pocket.
The “coaching” program that Panda Express sends it employees to is anything but normal. According to Jennifer,
“From the beginning, the Panda-sponsored Alive seminar attended by Ms. Spargifiore was bizarre and quickly devolved into psychological abuse. At the start, the attendees were told to sit down and not talk and were left in eerie isolation for a full hour before a man stormed in, yelling in Spanish and berating the attendees for sitting there and doing nothing when that is exactly what they had been instructed to do. The man, an Alive Seminars employee, loudly proclaimed that the attendees are “nothing” and “don’t matter,” rounding on some people to berate them individually, spittle flying. The overall effect was that of a particularly nasty drill sergeant yelling into Ms. Spargifiore’s face.
“It became apparent almost immediately that the goal of the seminar staff was to isolate and intimidate Ms. Spargifiore and the other attendees. The attendees were prohibited from using their cell phones; there was no clock in the room; the doors and windows were all covered with black cloth. The atmosphere resembled less a self-improvement seminar than a site for offthe-books interrogation of terrorist suspects. The sensory isolation and intimidation was reinforced by constant yelling and verbal abuse by seminar staff, creating an atmosphere of fear in the room.
“Nevertheless, most attendees, including Plaintiff, felt that they had no choice but to remain because they were sent to the seminar by Panda Express and told that their opportunity for promotion would depend on completion of the seminar…
“On Saturday, July 13, 2019, Plaintiff showed up to find a new ‘exercise’ wherein she was forced to strip down to her underwear under the guise of ‘trust-building.’ Plaintiff – stripped almost naked in front of strangers and co-workers – was extremely uncomfortable but pressed on because she knew it was her only chance at a promotion. Plaintiff felt extremely uncomfortable at the situation but compelled to continue because her prospects for advancement at Panda Express depended on completion of the seminar. Meanwhile, Alive Seminars staff were openly ogling the women in their state of undress, smiling, and laughing. [It also appears one of the male seminar instructors was recording Jennifer in her state of undress.]
“The exercise culminated when Plaintiff, along with other participants, had to take turns standing up to yell about their inner struggles until everyone else in the group ‘believed’ them. The last male participant had some difficulty ‘convincing’ the others and as a result, broke down in tears. Plaintiff was told to stand up and go to the middle of the room with the male participant, where they were forced to ‘hug it out’ wearing nothing but their underwear. Plaintiff was humiliated but did as she was told...”
Things were so bad that one participant threw up but was made to so in front of all the other attendees.
Jennifer wisely left the seminar and with no prospects of promotion since she did not complete the program, left the company. Unlike the others in the program, however, she filed a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
After obtaining a right-to-sue letter, she filed suit against both Panda Express and Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy. Jennifer seeks damages for sexual battery, sexual harassment, wrongful termination, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
What does Panda Express say? According to a statement made to media, “Panda Restaurant Group takes these allegations very seriously and is conducting an investigation. We do not condone the kind of behavior described in the lawsuit, and it is deeply concerning to us.”
While we believe Jennifer, we remind readers that this case is in its early stages and none of the defendants have been found guilty of any wrongdoing.
Are You the Victim of Sexual Harassment or Sexual Abuse at a Fast Food Restaurant?
This case still leaves us speechless. Both defendants would be wise to settle. If they don’t, we hope that a Los Angeles County jury awards Jennifer many millions of dollars. Alive Seminars “training facility” isn’t the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Panda Express management trainees aren’t ISIS terrorists. We are shocked that Panda Express considers this class mandatory for management trainees and equally shocked that Alive Seminars allows Neanderthals like those in Jennifer’s class to teach. (Heck, those clowns don’t even qualify for jobs at Abu Ghraib.)
If you been sexually harassed at work*, visit our sexual harassment FAQ page. Ready to see if you have a case? Contact us online, by email [hidden email] or by phone 877.858.8018. All inquiries are kept strictly confidential. Cases are handled on a contingent fee basis meaning you never owe us anything for legal fees and costs unless we collect money on your behalf.
*Jennifer was not assaulted at work but since the seminar was a work related event, the same rules for sexual harassment and hostile workplace apply.
Tip your servers well, be especially nice to fast food workers and consider eating anywhere but Panda Express.