Women say sexual misconduct common in hospitality industry

CHICAGO — One woman recalls how a general manager at a Chicago-area restaurant where she worked told her that if security cameras recorded him reaching between her legs and grabbing her genitals he could simply “edit that out.”

Another woman worked at an Atlanta restaurant and says her boss did nothing when two dishwashers kept making vulgar comments, so she quit wearing makeup to look less attractive and hopefully end the verbal abuse.

In the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against several prominent men in entertainment, politics and journalism, accounts like the ones these women share quietly play out in restaurants, bars and hotels across the country and rarely get the headlines. Court documents and interviews with the women and experts on the topic show hospitality industry workers are routinely subjected to sexual abuse and harassment from bosses, co-workers and customers that are largely unchecked. The nature of the work, which often has employees relying on tips, can make them especially vulnerable to abuse.

“I was absolutely humiliated,” said Sharonda Fields, who said the abuse at the Atlanta restaurant began shortly after she started working there last year. “It was degrading. I felt embarrassed. I felt low. I just felt like nothing happened when those guys talked to me that way, and especially when the staff and the managers knew what was going on. It made me feel like dirt.”

She filed a lawsuit against the restaurant last spring. Calls to the restaurant from The Associated Press went unanswered.

Joyce Smithey, an Annapolis, Maryland, attorney who has handled several sexual harassment lawsuits, said those accused of misconduct “have a great sense of who the victims are, who the women are who will put up with this, who need the job, are so scared they don’t fight back.”

That’s especially true in an industry where immigrants are a large part of the workforce. In a 2014 federal lawsuit in New York that was ultimately settled, a woman alleged that the general manager of a fast-food restaurant where she worked asked about her immigration status regularly and knew that she was “even more vulnerable” partly because she had no family in the United States.

Many accusers think fighting back is futile. According to a survey in Chicago, not only had 49 per cent of hotel workers reported incidents in which guests “exposed themselves, flashed them or answered the door naked,” but just 1 in 3 of the workers who had such experiences reported it to a boss.

Sarah Lyons, a research analyst with UNITE HERE Local 1, the union that conducted the survey last year and represents more than 15,000 hospitality workers in the Chicago area and northwestern Indiana, said the most common reason these workers didn’t come forward is because they knew someone who tried to report sexual misconduct and nothing changed as a result.

Often things can get worse for those who report misconduct. Attorneys and advocates for workers say waitresses who speak out risk facing retaliation: Their shifts can be taken away or they might be scheduled for slower business times when there are fewer opportunities to receive tips.

In a 2011 lawsuit against a Maryland yacht club, Victoria Tillbery reported that a boss had told her she would “never have to worry about your shifts” if she let him perform oral sex on her. She refused and after she reported her allegations to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, her job started making her do her prep duties during shifts and not before them. That took her away from waiting tables and earning tips.

Attorneys say the goal in these situations is to prompt the employee to quit and, if that doesn’t work, the worker is often made the target of an effort to discredit her character.

After Atlanta restaurant worker Fields refused to quit, her attorney said “false and bogus reasons to terminate her” surfaced.

“They enlisted another employee to falsely state that she (Fields) had come up to her and said, ‘If you agree to back me up on my claim I’ll pay you $100,’” said Fields’ attorney, Brad Dozier.

The other worker, hoping to gain favour with the bosses and get a promotion, made the false claim and the restaurant used it to fire Fields, Dozier said.

The woman who recounted the story about the Calumet City, Illinois, restaurant general manager, who suggested he would edit security camera footage of him inappropriately touching her, said she rebuffed the man’s advances. After that, Vger Williams said, a job opportunity she was promised at one of the restaurant chain’s other locations never developed and she was fired.

Williams filed a lawsuit last month. Restaurant officials declined comment when reached by the AP.

Workers who are sexually harassed by customers are often under pressure to remain quiet, too.

David Craver, president of the National Bartenders Association, said companies don’t want to lose business so “they roll out the red carpet to every customer.”

“It’s just like if a family member said something inappropriate, you can’t get rid of family,” he said.

A lot of harassment occurs in situations in which the workers are underpaid, said Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a national organization that works to improve industry conditions. She said managers often encourage waitresses to dress sexier to get more tips, which can lead to sexual misconduct. If the workers were paid more, they wouldn’t have to rely on tips and the misconduct would decrease, she said.

Improvements have shown up in other ways. In October, following the lead of voters in Seattle the year before, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance requiring hotels to develop anti-harassment policies and to provide panic buttons to workers by next summer if they work alone in guest rooms.

Also in October, celebrity chef John Besh stepped down from the company he founded after 25 women alleged that male supervisors at Besh’s New Orleans restaurants sexually harassed them. One woman says Besh pressured her into a sexual relationship, but Besh has said he believes it was consensual.

While suing is one way victims of misconduct can fight back, most settlements contain nondisclosure clauses that prevent them from talking about what happened to them. So the incidents are not publicized.

“It fosters the problem we are seeing so much of (because) these serial harassers, bullies and predators aren’t talked about,” Boston employment attorney James Weliky said.

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