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Hooters Protests Sex Bias Case With Washington Rally : Equal rights: At issue is whether restaurant chain can hire only women to wait on tables.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From all the lofty citations of legal precedents and warnings of dire consequences, the issue could have been a death penalty case or a major corporate merger.

But instead, the briefing at the National Press Club and outdoor rally Wednesday was much more gut-level: Should the Hooters chain be allowed to staff its restaurants solely with buxom waitresses in skimpy tank tops or should it have to hire men too.

Hooters executives, attacking what they charge is excessive federal regulation, vowed they would fight a government demand that it hire men.

“The issue isn’t sex discrimination, it’s common sense,” said company Vice President Mike McNeil. The national chain of 172 restaurants will go out of business, he said, if it cannot offer this special enticement. To underscore his view, he brought about 100 Hooters waitresses, wearing track suits over their regular uniforms, to rally several blocks away and picket federal regulators.

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McNeil complained that demands by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were unreasonable and unprecedented. But Marcia Greenberger, an attorney for the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, said the Atlanta-based chain is on the wrong side of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The EEOC could not explain its case for fairness for waiters. Not only have its negotiations with Hooters been confidential, but the agency was locked tight Wednesday as part of the governmental shutdown. No one was answering the phones.

McNeil said the EEOC issued a confidential “formal charge” against Hooters last spring terming its hiring practices illegal because it failed to hire men to serve tables. He said this followed a four-year investigation “in which we were tripping over federal regulators and investigators in our restaurants.”

“We negotiated with them and pointed out we had many male bartenders, dishwashers, cooks and restaurant managers,” he said. “Just no waiters. But conciliation has broken down. Our attorneys tell us we’re on solid ground, and we’re just not going to do what the commission wants.”

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Based on complaints the government has received, the commission has ordered Hooters to pay $22 million into a fund for EEOC distribution to male victims of its hiring policy.

Responding to McNeil, Greenberger said in an interview that federal law is clear “you can’t discriminate against men or women in hiring practices if both can do the job.”

The law grants exceptions, she said, only in obvious cases. “If you needed a wet nurse, you wouldn’t have to offer the job to men,” Greenberger said.

“But the closest example to the Hooters case,” she continued, “is airline policy. The airlines used to say travelers only wanted young attractive stewardesses to serve them, and that men or older women couldn’t do it. But the courts said that’s not going to fly.

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“In short, you can’t put a label on a job so far as serving food,” Greenberger said, adding: “There’s a lot of principle involved here. Hooters is going to have to come forward and justify their policy in court.”

McNeil, however, said the Hooters protest in Washington “frankly was to try to bring some public pressure and political pressure to bear on the federal government, and to get people to ask what their tax dollars are being spent on.”

To underscore the point, the company took out full-page newspaper ads in the Washington Post and USA Today showing a brawny man dressed as a Hooters waitress and saying: “Come on, Washington. Get a grip. It’s time for a little common sense.”

The government has a 100,000-case backlog of job discrimination claims, the company said, adding: “It’s hard to believe that replacing Hooters Girls with Hooters Guys is one of the EEOC’s top priorities.”

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