Passengers flying United Airlines, American Airlines or British Airways can order vegetarian, vegan or kosher meals to sate their hunger. But some employees who make those meals don’t have that choice.
Four employees of Gate Gourmet, one of the largest airline and railway caterers in the country, filed a class action suit against the company in May, alleging Gate Gourmet mislabeled cafeteria food so that its workers unknowingly violated their own dietary restrictions.
Of the 160 people who work at Gate Gourmet’s facility near Sea-Tac Airport, 58 follow special diets. Some are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, Jews or Muslims who don’t eat pork; some are Hindu and don’t eat beef; and others are vegetarian.
According to the lawsuit, the Gate Gourmet employee cafeteria for years has served meat that was not identified as beef, pork or poultry.
For example, meatballs assumed to be turkey actually contained pork and beef.
What’s more, workers had no choice but to eat what Gate Gourmet served or go hungry. Security restrictions at the facility kept employees from being able to bring their own meals, and given the time it takes to go through security, going off-site is impractical.
In the lawsuit, workers are asking Gate Gourmet to accommodate dietary restrictions and to pay for religious cleansing rituals for employees who unknowingly ate beef or pork.
Real Change contacted Gate Gourmet officials, a local manager and attorneys for comment on the lawsuit. The company declined to comment on any litigation.
When pressed for details on Gate Gourmet’s operations, spokesperson Christina Ulosevich said, “Vigorous, systematic and multi-layered catering security and access control procedures are in place,” but that she could not discuss specifics.
The solution is not that complicated said, Seth Rosenberg, an attorney representing the employees in this case.
It doesn’t take much of an effort to tell people what’s in the sauce or beans.
“The odd thing is, they’ve refused to take any steps, including accurately labeling the food,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg filed a request for the Washington State Supreme Court to review the case Nov. 1. He said the court will decide whether or not to hear the case within a month.
No outside food
Due to security concerns, Gate Gourmet does not allow workers to bring food into the workplace. As a result, the company provides lunch to the employees, according to the lawsuit.
TSA inspects all food that catering companies bring onto planes.
Gate Gourmet’s facility is located on Port of Seattle property near Sea-Tac Airport, just a few blocks away from International Boulevard, which has a number of restaurants. When employees start their shifts, they display a work badge to a security guard, get their hand scanned and input an employee number.
The company does not allow the employees to come and go during their shifts, so they can’t eat in the parking lot just outside the building, which is visible from the cafeteria.
James Kumar has worked for four years at Gate Gourmet in the storeroom. Discussing the lawsuit at Rosenberg Law Group’s office in October, Kumar looked relaxed in a polo shirt, leaning back in his chair.
He spoke casually but said he was angry and upset by the situation.
Kumar, a shop steward for Unite Here Local 8, a union serving hotel and food service workers, noticed a box of meatballs in the storeroom in the spring of 2011. They contained beef and pork, but in the cafeteria they were not labeled.
(Local and national representatives of Unite Here, which represents Gate Gourmet food service workers, did not return calls or emails requesting comment.)
Kumar is Hindu, and his religion teaches that cows are sacred and not to be eaten.
He quickly realized that the cafeteria served food that violated his own dietary restrictions, and those of his co-workers.
Rosenberg said 10 are Ethiopian Orthodox Christian who do not eat pork, 15 are either Muslim or Jewish and must eat food that is halal or kosher, 11 are Hindu and do not eat beef, and 22 are vegetarian.
When Kumar complained, Gate Gourmet replaced pork and beef meatballs with turkey meatballs, but reverted back to beef and pork after a few months, he said.
Kumar also found refried beans that contained lard (pork fat) served as a vegetarian option, he said.
By joining the lawsuit, Kumar said he’s speaking out on behalf of his co-workers, most of whom don’t like the situation but won’t complain for fear of losing their jobs.
Grieving a loss
For some of these 58 employees, eating beef and pork violates a religious rule they’ve known their entire lives.
Asegedew, a 44-year-old Ethiopian immigrant who declined to share his last name because he is embarrassed that he ate pork, ran into the bathroom and vomited when he first learned that he’d eaten meatballs with pork.
Now when Asegedew can’t tell what’s in the food in the cafeteria, or if he thinks there’s a possibility that it could contain pork, he eats a bowl of steamed rice with hot sauce.
He still feels terrible for eating pork last year and violating a rule he’s followed since childhood.
But more than that, he’s grieving the loss of his large church community. He hasn’t told his wife that he ate meat.
Sunday mornings, when his wife heads out to their church in South Seattle, Asegedew instead goes to a Rainier Beach park by himself, and prays.
Righting the wrongs
Over the summer, Gate Gourmet started allowing employees to bring lunch to work, Kumar said, and he believes the change came in response to the lawsuit.
The company will need to do more, he added. A union contract requires Gate Gourmet to provide meals to the workers, but workers say Gate Gourmet also needs to help them right past wrongs. Some workers who have violated their religion say they need to travel to sacred sites to be cleansed.
Kumar said he has to travel to India for a cleansing ritual that lasts 10 days.
The flight to India alone would cost between $1,200 and $2,000 alone, an entire month of pay at minimum wage.
The employees are asking for up to $20,000 per employee to pay for travel, lodging and expenses to cover the trips.
Employers not required to accommodate religious beliefs
First, the lawsuit has a number of hurdles to clear. There are no Washingon state laws on the books requiring employers to accommodate religious beliefs and practices, and Superior Courty Judge Mary Yu has already dismissed a portion of the lawsuit.
Rosenberg, who is representing the workers, said he’ll appeal the decision. In the meantime, he contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), who he said is conducting an investigation.
Local representatives would not confirm whether or not the EEOC is investigating.