Though there have been lots of headlines about sexual misconduct involving celebrity chefs, there hasn’t been much coverage about the countless other incidents at less glitzy restaurants. It turns out the family and chain restaurants, coffee shops and greasy spoons that millions of Americans visit each year also can be hotbeds of sexual harassment for women.
More sexual harassment claims in the U.S. are filed in the restaurant industry than in any other, where as many as 90% of women reportedly experience some form of sexual harassment, according to a report from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROCU). In states where the tipped minimum wage is kept at $2.13, women are twice as likely to experience sexual harassment and three times as likely to be told to appear “sexier.”
Women, particularly minority women, are often placed in jobs with lower status and are more likely to be hired for lower-paying segments like quick-serve and family-style than for higher-paying segments like fine dining. This difference in power can create an environment where sexual harassment is tolerated, ignored, or normalized because employees don’t feel comfortable confronting others about their inappropriate behavior. The industry’s high turnover rate — 70% annually — can also contribute to this culture, as targets of harassment are likely to leave before making any complaints.
“Workers in these low-paying restaurant jobs are often teenagers or adults struggling to pay their bills, making them easy targets for abuse,” says Laura Palumbo, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “It suggests that they are very replaceable; that because of their status in the workplace, no one will care about their claim or their claim won’t make a difference.”
One way that many household name chains, including Waffle House, Starbucks, Taco Bell, Domino’s Pizza, Red Lobster, Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, Hooter’s, Jack in the Box, circumvent potential lawsuits is by inserting arbitration agreements in their hiring packets. Disputes are handled by arbitrators hired by “private parties,” usually the restaurants, which makes it more likely for them to win their cases. “When the employer has handled a case with the same arbitrator, the employer’s odds of winning are double.”
But arbitration isn’t working for all casual-dining chains. According to a report from Vox, more than 60 women had come forward with allegations of sexual harassment against managers, co-workers and franchise owners of Applebee’s and IHOP, with complaints ranging from groping and inappropriate comments to outright threats of violence when one manager’s requests for sex were denied.
Vox found that IHOP and Applebee’s, which are both owned by a California-based firm called DineEquity, have been involved in eight federal sexual harassment lawsuits — four naming IHOP employees, four naming Applebee’s employees — since 2010. The news website noted that this was the most of any individual restaurant chain during that time.
In one class-action case, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against two IHOP owners in Illinois on behalf of 11 female employees and one male employee, including one woman who was 16 years old at the time of the alleged harassment. The suit, which was filed in 2017, alleges that one of the restaurant’s general managers had told several of the women they were “sexy,” adding that their “pants looked good.” The same manager was also accused of harassing the 16-year-old when she worked at the IHOP several years back, and threatening violence when she refused his advances. Employees for the same IHOP were also accused of groping the servers’ breasts, and buttocks against their will and when reported were met with indifference by the owner.
Immigrant women can face additional hurdles because many are undocumented: 10 percent of the workforce in “eating and drinking places” in 2014 lacked U.S. work authorization, according to the Pew Research Center. Fear of deportation may make undocumented immigrant restaurant workers who are abused less likely to report that abuse to authorities.
Maria Vasquez, 52, a Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrant mother of six, had been one of those women until she decided enough was enough. She worked as a cook and dishwasher at Art’s Wings and Things in South Los Angeles and considered her job a lifeline until one day in 2005. That was when restaurant owner Arthur Boone cornered her in the back of the warehouse and raped her. According to Karen Foshay, a KCRW investigative reporter who broke the story, Vasquez alleged that when she transferred to a different location of the restaurant – one that did not have a warehouse – Boone assaulted her in the bathroom there and that the rapes continued over a period of eight years. She sued Boone in June 2014 seeking damages based on ten allegations detailed in her lawsuit.
“Because of the excess of work that I had, I didn’t have time to talk to anybody. All I did was work and watch over my kids, ” she said. “I didn’t have anyone to give me a hand. I couldn’t find who to tell about what was happening to me.” She left the job, she says, when Boone threatened to cut her pay.
Velasquez is one of the rare immigrants who were able to sue their employers and win a judgment of almost $1.5 million. Unfortunately, Art’s Wings and Things went bankrupt right after, and she hasn’t been able to collect a cent from Boone.
The sexual harassment described in these cases is hardly unique. It’s clear that service workers are particularly susceptible, and it’s time the restaurant industry steps up to counteract this. As the #MeToo movement sweeps across the country, restaurants will be coming under increasing pressure to address and root out behavior that harms their employees.
Otherwise, more and more waitresses will be asking, “You want a lawsuit with that?”