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Former Panda Express Worker Sues After Being Forced To Strip in “Cult Initiation Ritual”

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  • A former Panda Express employee is suing the chain, as well as a seminar company, for allegedly forcing her to strip down to her underwear during a “self-improvement” exercise.
  • Her lawsuit claims that seminar leaders also forced her to hug a man while both were in their underwear, that participants were filmed while in their underwear, and that participants were told to wait quietly in a dark room only to have a man later come in and berate them.
  • Panda Express has distanced itself from the seminar company and denied allegations that employees were required to participate in the seminar to be eligible for promotions. 
  • The seminar company has also since said that it does not work with Panda Express, despite a Facebook post on the company’s page indicating otherwise.

Worker’s Lawsuit Describes Disturbing Seminar

A former Panda Express worker from a store in Santa Clarita, California, is suing after she said she was forced to strip down to her underwear in front of other employees during a 2019 “self-improvement” seminar.

According to the woman’s lawsuit, the on-paper goal of that exercise was for participants to open up to one another about their vulnerabilities “until everyone else in the group ‘believed’ them.”

However, she said seminar staff members — which were employed by the company Alive Seminars, not Panda Express — used the moment to “openly [ogle]” at her and other female participants.

At one point during the exercise, the woman claimed that a male participant, also in his underwear, “had some difficulty ‘convincing’ the others and as a result, broke down in tears.” The lawsuit then alleges that the female employee was forced to “hug it out” with him.

Even though she was humiliated, she said she did so, largely because she had been told that completing this seminar was a pre-requisite for promotion at Panda Express and because she’d already shelled out several hundred dollars just to take the course.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg of some of the dark claims laid out in this lawsuit.

During that same exercise, the woman said staff dimmed the lights and instructed participants “to stand up and close their eyes, pretending that a light from above would come down and take all the ‘negative energy’ out of them, then pretend that a hole opened up in the ground and swallowed the “negative energy.”

While this was happening, seminar staff turned a cell phone light on and allegedly used that phone to record the participants. 

During another exercise, participants were allegedly left alone in a room and told not to talk. An hour later, a man stormed in yelling in Spanish while berating the participants for doing nothing — even though they had been told to do just that. 

According to the lawsuit, that man then said the participants were “‘nothing’ and ‘don’t matter,’ rounding on some people to berate them individually, spittle flying.”

The woman filing the suit summed up the seminar as “psychological abuse,” saying it began to look more and more like a “cult initiation ritual as time went on.” In fact, after it, she even quit her job.

Panda Express and Alive Seminars Respond

The woman is suing both Alive Seminars and Panda Express, which she maintains sent her and other employees to the program.  

“Panda Express is on the hook because they were fully aware of what was going on,” her lawyer, Oscar Ramirez, told The Washington Post.

Ramirez also noted that other employees have also since joined in a class-action lawsuit.

Panda Express has distanced itself from Alive Seminars, saying it has no interest in or control over the company. 

A spokesperson has also denied that employees were forced to participate in the seminar in order to be considered for promotions, though he did add that the company is investigating the claims detailed in the lawsuit. 

In an interview with La Magazine, Alive Seminars asserted that it doesn’t work with Panda Express; however, a Facebook post from 2019 heavily seems to contradict that. 

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (LA Mag) (CBS Los Angeles)

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United Airlines Dispels Complaints That Safety Will Be Compromised By New Pilot Diversity Initiative

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  • Later this year, United Airlines plans to open a pilot training school that will have a focus on diversity.
  • According to a tweet from the company on Tuesday, the school plans to enroll 5,000 students over the next decade, with at least 50% of those students being women or people of color.  
  • The program has been met with condemnation by some conservatives, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who implied it would lead to increased plane crashes and deaths. 
  • Amidst the criticism, United has stressed that it is not lowering its safety standards but simply working to ensure that minority groups have more opportunities to become pilots.

United’s New Diversity Initiative

United Airlines is launching a new school that it hopes will increase diversity among pilots.

“Our flight deck should reflect the diverse group of people on board our planes every day,” the company said Tuesday on Twitter in a statement announcing the news. “That’s why we plan for 50% of the 5,000 pilots we train in the next decade to be women or people of color.”

Applications for the school are currently open, and United plans to enroll 100 students this year, with its first class of 20 beginning this summer. Reportedly, United and JPMorgan Chase will each provide $1.2 million in scholarships to incoming students. 

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 94% of pilots and flight engineers are white. That data also indicates about as many are men.

United itself said only about 7% of its pilots are women and only 13% aren’t white. With those stats in mind, United said it’s working with three historically Black colleges and universities to help drive recruitment. 

United Faces Criticism From Tucker Carlson and Others

Since its announcement, United has had to contend with a hefty amount of pushback, as a number of people have replied to the company’s initial tweet by questioning the diversity initiative and its relationship with passenger safety. 

“How about you hire experienced, good pilots regardless of race or gender?” one person asked. “I don’t care about a pilot’s race — I care if he or she can land the damned plane safely.” 

Wednesday night, Fox News host Tucker Carlson even implied that the initiative could lead to increased plane crashes and deaths.

“An airline pilot transports hundreds of people at a time in a thin-walled metal tube going nearly 600 miles an hour 35,000 feet off the ground. Flying a commercial airliner is dangerous,” Carlson said. “Like performing heart surgery, no matter how many times you’ve done it, it is inherently high stakes. People die if you screw up. In the airline business, as in medicine, not killing people is all that matters. So how will racial and gender quotas make United Airlines safer?”

“The CEO of United Airlines is saying that we need to replace the pilots currently flying airplanes because they’re the wrong skin color,” he later added. “Only diseased people think like this. 

Factually, Carlson is wrong. United has made no indication that it is planning to replace current pilots; rather, it is likely responding to a long-term shortage of pilots, as many are soon set to begin retirement.

United Responds

United has defended its program multiple times over the last couple of days. 

“All the highly qualified candidates we accept into the Academy, regardless of race or sex, will have met or exceeded the standards we set for admittance,” United said in a clarification on its safety standards.

Others on Twitter have also dispelled the criticism around the pilot program, with one user saying, “@TuckerCarlson missed the point, again. @united is training pilots to a level of safety of all other pilots. The standard isn’t dropping, the opportunity for underserved segments of the population is increasing.”

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Fox News) (Newsweek

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Restaurants Across America Face Ketchup Packet Shortage

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  • Single-serving ketchup packets are in high demand across the U.S., but producers of the condiment are struggling to keep up with orders.
  • Restaurants have leaned heavily on packets for delivery and takeout options amid the coronavirus pandemic, and even when indoor dining began to return, the CDC advised businesses to opt for packets instead of shared bottles.
  • As demand surges, so have prices, which were already higher than bottle options.
  • Heinz, the biggest ketchup producer in the country, has promised to tackle the issue with a 25% increase in production, totaling 12 billion ketchup packets a year.

Ketchup Shortage

Restaurants across the country are struggling to get their hands on a steady supply of ketchup packets, making condiment production yet another facet of the food industry to be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discouraged traditional dine-in services to curb the spread of COVID-19, which forced many restaurants to lean on delivery and takeout. Even when indoor dining opened back up in some areas, the CDC advised restaurants to avoid using shared items like menus, condiments, and other food containers.

That means these businesses were suddenly forced to ramp up their take-out packaging efforts and offer more single-serving condiment options. On top of that, more people began cooking at home, triggering a 15% increase in retail sales of ketchup last year compared to 2019, according to The Wall Street Journal

As demand surges, so have prices, which were already higher than bottle options.
In fact, Long John Silver’s —a chain with nearly 700 stores, told the WSJ that the switch to packets is actually costing them an extra half-million dollars.

The company added that it’s been forced to seek ketchup from secondary suppliers, something Texas Roadhouse chains said they were also forced to do as well. Some restaurant staffers have had to scour wholesale stores like Costco and even turn to sites like Ebay.

Ketchup Maker Responds

Heinz, the biggest ketchup producer in the country, is at the epicenter of the problem since it’s responsible for about 70% of the U.S. retail market for condiments.

The company, however, promised that it’s trying to fix the issue. Just days ago, a Heinz executive told the WSJ that the company plans to open two new manufacturing lines in April, and more after that, increasing production by about 25% for a total of more than 12 billion packets a year.

Heinz already is running extra shifts at plants and cut back on some varieties to focus on making more single-serve packets. The company also invented a no-touch ketchup dispenser to help provide Covid-safe alternatives to shared bottles, but the pressure is on because the demand for single-serve packets is still expected to continue as the country opens back up.

See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (CNN) (Fox News)

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Florida Governor Denies Wrongdoing in Vaccine Deal With Publix After “Pay for Play” Accusations

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  • In a “60 Minutes” segment that aired Sunday night, CBS reported that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) gave an exclusive COVID-19 vaccine deal to Publix grocery stores in Palm Beach County weeks before announcing that the chain had donated $100,000 to his political action committee.
  • DeSantis and Publix have denied any form of “pay for play” deal, but this is not the first time DeSantis has been accused of engaging in a form of “vaccine favoritism” that had the effect of disproportionately benefiting wealthy, white communities.
  • While some have defended Publix’s exclusive distribution deal, many others have noted that Walgreens and CVS pharmacies are much more abundant in the state and also more common in less wealthy communities. 

“60 Minutes” Report on DeSantis’ Vaccine Favoritism

A Sunday night “60 Minutes” report on CBS found that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced a distribution partnership with Publix grocery store only weeks after the company donated $100,000 to his political action committee. 

While both DeSantis and Publix have denied any wrongdoing attached to the deal, this news comes after the Tampa Bay Times reported that DeSantis was acting as a vaccine gatekeeper by directing doses to wealthy communities — with some vaccination pop-up sites being affiliated with his PAC donors. 

It also comes after state Democratic leaders asked the U.S. Department of Justice in February to investigate whether or not DeSantis violated federal law by opening up a vaccination site that was only accessible to residents in two of Manatee County’s wealthiest neighborhoods. 

Sunday night’s coverage on “60 Minutes” echoed those concerns, describing Florida’s vaccine rollout as “deteriorat[ing] into a virtual free for all” as “wealthy and well-connected residents cut the line, leaving other Floridians without a fair shot.”

“I imagine Governor DeSantis’s office would say, ‘Look, we privatized the rollout because it’s more efficient and it works better,’” reporter Sharyn Alfonsi said during the segment.

“It hasn’t worked better for people of color,” State Rep. Omari Hardy (R) replied. “Before, I could call the public health director. She would answer my calls. But now if I want to get my constituents information about how to get this vaccine I have to call a lobbyist from Publix? That makes no sense. They’re not accountable to the public.”

Hardy’s statement is notable because, as “60 Minutes” pointed out during the segment, poorer communities in Palm Beach County — where Publix was granted exclusive rights to distribute COVID-19 vaccines — do not have a Publix. In fact, for some in the county, the nearest Publix is around 30 miles away.

The segment also aired a confrontation between Alfonsi and DeSantis from last month in which DeSantis called the donation report “wrong” and “a fake narrative.”

“I met with the county mayor,” DeSantis told Alfonsi. “I met with the administrator. I met with all the folks in Palm Beach County, and I said, ‘Here’s some of the options. We can do more drive-thru sites. We can give more to hospitals. We can do the Publix.’ And they said, ‘We think that would be the easiest thing for our residents.’”

“The criticism is that it’s pay-to-play, governor,” Alfonsi said. 

In a voiceover, Alfonsi then said Melissa McKinlay, the county commissioner in the Glades, never met with DeSantis about the Publix deal.

“The irresponsible suggestion that there was a connection between campaign contributions and our willingness to join other pharmacies in support of the state’s vaccine distribution efforts is absolutely false and offensive,” Publix said in a statement to CBS.

This is not the first controversial donation to be connected to Publix. Earlier this year, it was learned that Heiress Julie Jenkins Fancelli donated $300,000 to fund the pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. 

DeSantis Condemned Online

On Monday, “DeSantis,” “Publix,” and “Walgreens and CVS” all became top-trending U.S. topics on Twitter. 

Many condemned DeSantis for the Publix deal while arguing that it would have made more sense for other pharmacies, such as Walgreens and CVS, to lead the charge in vaccine distributions. 

Others like Jesse Hunt, communications director for the Republican Governors Association, said, “60 Minutes makes the same mistake the dozens of national outlets have made when it comes to Ron DeSantis and Florida.”

“Publix was the first retail pharmacy ready to handle this massive undertaking & it’s objectively one of the most trusted & respected companies in America.”

Still, many were quick to argue Hunt’s claim, including Rep. Hardy. 

“But they are typically not located in communities of color. So when he tried to make Publix the sole distributor in PBC, he was trying an approach that he knew would leave out people of color in Palm Beach County. This was a textbook example of systemic racism at work.”

See what others are saying: (CBS) (Axios) (The Hill)

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