Drive-Thru Discrimination

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

Leon Hendricks squeezes his linebacker frame into a kitchen chair in his modest Lauderdale Lakes house, the television blaring sports in the background, as always. The curtains are drawn in the dark, cramped living room, the focal point of which is a La-Z-Boy recliner perched in front of the large TV. The only time Hendricks ventures outside these four walls is to go to a physician or psychologist or to stroll around the block with his son.

Hendricks' world wasn't always so narrow. The 49-year-old used to navigate across South Florida in his big rig by night, delivering dough, chicken, and foodstuffs for Pepsico to its Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises. He loved that job, loved the freedom of being on the road, and especially loved the pay. He could support his family nicely on $56,000 a year. He did well, too, receiving companywide safe-driving awards two years in a row. Hendricks didn't even mind having to work 60 to 65 hours a week and every holiday except Christmas.

In his free time, Hendricks took his son to Heat and Marlins games and took his family to the beach. At Christmas the kids got whatever presents they wanted. His wife, Evetty, who injured her back years ago, stayed home caring for their two children, Cleon and Leoney.

But Hendricks' world shattered one night in February 1995. He slipped on some ice while lifting a box in a truck's freezer compartment, fracturing his wrist in five places. Surgeons inserted four pins and a metal bar into his wrist, likening the broken bones to "a bag of potato chips."

Following medical leave Hendricks returned to work on light duty, manning the phones in the office. But in October, even though Hendricks' doctors still restricted him from lifting more than 40 pounds, his bosses put him back on a delivery route in which he says he had to unload boxes weighing as much as 90 pounds. Hendricks, who is black, says two white drivers who were injured on the job were assigned to the office permanently.

He asked his dispatcher, Blaine Rigler, for a route in which helpers accompany the drivers and do the lifting. Such a route was available, but Hendricks claims a white driver, Tom Sleeman, was assigned to it. Hendricks recalls he heard Rigler state he would "never hire another black driver after Barry Harris." Harris was another driver for Pepsico who filed a claim of race discrimination against the company, alleging a racially hostile work environment. Harris lost the case. (Rigler no longer works in Pepsico's Pompano Beach office and could not be reached for comment. A lawyer for Pepsico would not comment on any of Hendricks' allegations.)

Continuing to lift those heavy boxes, Hendricks watched his hand swell up like a grapefruit as the healing muscles tore. "It was aching like hell," he says.

One day he showed a secretary in the office, Candy O'Brien, his puffed-up hand. Sympathizing, she assigned him a route with a helper. But, stated O'Brien in a deposition, Rigler quickly switched him back to a route with no helper, telling O'Brien, "he's using his hand as an excuse."

Hendricks thought his bosses were trying to force him to quit. He was also starting to feel his bosses were discriminating against him because of his race. Hendricks remembers another incident that had occurred, when he worked with a white man, Paul Maschinot, who needled him all day. Finally Hendricks told his supervisor he did not want to work with Maschinot any more. According to Hendricks, Maschinot said, "I can't help the way I am, I'm a member of the Aryan Nation." Instead of reprimanding Maschinot, Rigler merely laughed, according to Hendricks. Maschinot no longer works out of the Pompano Pepsico office and could not be reached for comment.

On July 12, 1996, after returning from his route, Hendricks was informed he was being let go because he damaged a Pepsico truck in an accident and didn't report it. Hendricks denies he ever had an accident and says the only evidence of one was a small streak of paint on the bumper of the tractor-trailer. The person who accused Hendricks of not reporting the accident, Greg Siefert, a white man, replaced Hendricks after he was fired. O'Brien testified that two white drivers, Jeff Marsh and Brian DeHaan, had accidents without reporting them. Marsh received no discipline, while DeHaan was fired but later rehired.

According to Hendricks, he confronted his new boss, Gary Smith, saying, "You didn't fire me because I had an accident. Guys tear all kinds of trucks apart." Hendricks says Smith replied, "Try to prove it." Smith also could not be reached for comment.

Hendricks went home, lay in his bed, and cried. But he soon picked himself up and fought back, launching a legal battle that continues to this day. Pepsico tried to block him from getting unemployment compensation; however, a hearing officer ruled that Pepsico did not prove that Hendricks knew about the scratch on the truck and did not have good cause to terminate him.

Next Hendricks pursued a claim of race discrimination through the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. On October 23, 1996, Federico Costales, district director of the EEOC Miami division, ruled that Pepsico "refused to provide a reasonable work accommodation for charging party's disability and terminated his employment based on his race, black."

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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