Stone Crabs and the Women Who Love to Serve Them

For many years female waiters were unknown at Joe's -- until investigators decided to make a federal case out of it

The government's case, however, did not rely solely on numbers. Four witnesses, all of them women who had either been fired or who had never been hired, testified that managers, waiters, and other staff freely discussed the restaurant's policy of hiring only men in the dining room during the 1980s.

Former telephone clerk Cathy Denise Evans testified that three different managers, including Jo Ann Bass herself, told her Joe's did not hire female servers. Another manager asked Evans to segregate women's job applications. "She asked me to look through them one day and take out the female applicants, and I did," Evans testified. "And when she came in the office, she looked through them, and she was saying, 'Waitress, waitress, waitress,' and those were going in the garbage."

Cassandra Williams, a cook in the restaurant's takeout kitchen during part of 1990, testified that a waiter told her women could not serve in the dining room. She also overheard a maitre d' telling a female job applicant she would not be hired as a server. "[The applicant] said she had heard that there were two positions open," Williams related. "He said that there were two positions available but they weren't available for women."

Before the lawsuit was filed, the restaurant hired only a small number of waiters each year, and those were recruited through word-of-mouth rather than mass-market advertising, said senior EEOC trial attorney Donald Tyler -- the theory allegedly being that male waiters would tell their male friends about the openings.

The restaurant began to advertise in local papers only after the EEOC initiated its investigation. At the same time, Joe's also instituted the dreaded "tray test," during which server candidates parade in front of a panel of managers while holding a serving tray stacked with heavy ceramic plates. The EEOC charged that the test is just a pretext -- an objective standard designed to exclude women. Two of the EEOC's witnesses claimed the trays were heavier than those used in normal operations. Bass countered by saying she instituted the policy out of concern. "There was one server, whenever he went out into the dining room my heart was in my throat," she recalled. "I worried that if that tray fell, we could have a lawsuit that would end Joe's."

The tray test was the first formal hiring procedure adopted by a family business that has traditionally avoided the strictures of larger companies, Bass said. The restaurant never needed to do much employee recruiting because its reputation -- and Bass's own influence among members of the news media -- has always guaranteed a large turnout of prospective servers just before Joe's traditional season opening in October. "The press, the media, they've always come to us," she said of the coverage in the late 1980s. "A friend was at that time executive editor of the Miami Herald. Many times when Janet Chusmir wanted to do a story about women in business, she would come to us -- a success story. She would do a story about my daughter or myself.

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