Drive-Thru Discrimination

Leon Hendricks is suing his former employer, fast-food giant Pepsico, for racism. He has the EEOC on his side.

Pepsico also retaliated against a witness who participated in the investigation process, according to Costales. It is unclear to which witness Costales was referring, and EEOC investigators refused to answer questions about the ruling, saying all cases are confidential.

The finding was rare and significant, according to Randy Fleischer, Hendricks' attorney. The EEOC finds discrimination in less than 5 percent of cases nationally, he says.

While the finding did not result in any direct action, it did pave the way for Hendricks to file a $50 million lawsuit against Pepsico in U.S. District Court on October 26 of this year.

Surgeons operated on Hendricks' hand five more times in an attempt to repair the new injuries, but the operations only resulted in more complications. Metal plates, pins, and screws sewn inside his hand make it impossible for him to bend his fingers or make a fist. Rated by doctors as 70 percent disabled with significant nerve damage, Hendricks will never be able to do delivery work again. In fact he drives only in emergencies. He can no longer swim, so the family has stopped going to the beach. His wife has to button his shirt, tie his shoelaces, and zip up his pants.

Yet in its written responses to the lawsuit, Pepsico denies that Hendricks is disabled and counters his claims. The Pepsico lawyers responded in detail to one charge -- that a white driver with less seniority than Hendricks was assigned a route with a helper. That driver actually had more seniority with the company than Hendricks, the lawyers claim.

Fleischer doubts that Pepsico will offer any settlement, but he's optimistic about his chances of winning the case, citing the fact that the EEOC sided with him.

For his part Hendricks is not counting on any money yet but says winning the case is the only way he can send his kids to college. The family is currently living on about $1200 a month in social security disability payments for him and $350 a month in disability payments for his wife, who suffered her back injury on the job. They are off the food stamps and welfare they turned to after he lost his job, but there is no money for extras. No more Heat or Marlins games, no eating out in restaurants. Friends gave them a Thanksgiving turkey.

A bottle of ibuprofen tablets -- a whopping 800 milligrams each -- and a bottle of antidepressants sit on the kitchen table. He takes the former to dull the constant pain in his hand that travels up his arm to his neck and the latter to ward off the ever-present depression. Even with the pharmaceuticals, he still feels like killing himself "all the time." But he won't: "That's the easy way out," he says. Watching his beloved New York Knicks and Yankees provides his only pleasure of late.

Hendricks' son, a husky boy wearing a red silky tank top and shorts, enters the kitchen, rummaging through the refrigerator. Hendricks stops his tale of woe to turn to Cleon. "I don't want you to wind up like me," he says. "I want you to go to college and get an education like I never did."

But Cleon says he has learned another lesson from his dad's ordeal. "People shouldn't treat people bad 'cause of the color of the skin or because they get hurt," he says. "It's wrong."

Contact Julie Kay at her e-mail address: Julie_Kay@newtimesbpb.com

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