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Panda Express chain settles national origin discrimination case

The Chinese fast food chain Panda Express has agreed to settle a Department of Justice complaint that it engaged in recordkeeping activity that discriminated against noncitizens lawfully working in the United States. The Justice Department announced that the company, which operates some 1,800 restaurants nationwide, will set aside $200,000 for a back pay fund to compensate the affected workers. Panda Express has also agreed to pay a $400,000 civil penalty.

According to the Courthouse News Service, the Justice Department began investigating in May 2016 and developed reasonable cause to believe Panda Express was "engaged in a pattern or practice of unfair documentary practices against non-U.S. citizens based on their citizenship status," the settlement states.

Panda Express was apparently a little too dedicated to ensuring its employees were authorized to work in the U.S. It put into place unnecessary and burdensome requirements for green card holders and other legal workers. They were made to repeatedly re-establish that their work authorization was still valid, even though such requirements were not made of U.S. citizens.

The differing requirements for non-citizen and citizen workers violated the anti-discrimination provisions of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, according to the complaint. The INA specifically prohibits unfair documentary practices, along with other discrimination based on immigrant status or national origin. It is likely the practices also violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits national origin discrimination.

Also as part of the settlement, Panda Express will have to train its human resources staff on legal compliance with the INA's anti-discrimination provision. It will also subject itself to reporting and monitoring requirements.

Noncitizens who had authorization to work in the U.S. and who lost work at Panda Express between May 31, 2014 and June 28, 2017, due to these practices are eligible to apply for back wages through the $200,000 fund.

Panda Express maintains that it didn't discriminate in either intent or practice, but agreed to settle to refocus on business. The Justice Department applauded the company's willingness to cooperate and to compensate employees who may have lost wages due to the recordkeeping issue.

If you believe you may have been discriminated against at work in a similar way to the workers in this story, we urge you to reach out to an employment law attorney who can answer your questions and protect your rights.

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