While sex harassment by Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Oliver Stone and other household Hollywood names have dominated the media coverage, far too little attention has been focused on the endemic sex harassment which exists in the restaurant industry. The Economist reported that while just 7% of working American women are employed in restaurants, a third of all those who bring sex-harassment cases to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are restaurant workers.
There are several reasons for restaurants having an outsized share of sex harassment cases. Waitresses who rely on tips for their earnings may receive as little as $2.13 per hour in some states as their “tipped minimum wage.” This reliance on tips creates an immediate economic barrier for waitresses to stand up to harassment by customers or supervisors. As noted in The Glass Floor, a landmark report on sex harassment in the restaurant industry, “since women restaurant workers living off of tips are forced to rely on customers for their income, rather than their employer, these workers must often tolerate inappropriate behavior from customers, co-workers and management.”
Over 25 female workers at the New Orleans Besh Restaurant Group, owned by celebrity chef John Besh, said they were subjected to sex harassment by male co-workers and managers. The waitresses claimed that they were touched, verbally harassed, and subjected to quid pro quo proposals for sex. An investigative article in the Times-Picayune described a restaurant where several male co-workers and bosses touched female employees without consent, made suggestive comments about their appearance and – in a few cases – tried to leverage positions of authority for sex. Several women said female colleagues, including in some cases their immediate managers, warned them to beware of "handsy" male supervisors – at times on their first day on the job. According to the Times-Picayune, those women who complained of sexual harassment were berated, ostracized, or ignored.
In a similar vein, celebrity chef Todd English and members of his Plaza Hotel Food Hall staff are alleged to have harassed women in what was described in court papers as a “rape culture.” One of the sex harassment lawsuits against Todd English claims that he propositioned one employee, saying she was “sexy” and that he was surprised she was still single, and then tried to kiss her on the lips.
In December 2017, an exposé by Eater reported that celebrity chef Mario Batali was accused of inappropriately touching four women and engaging in a pattern of sex harassment that spanned the last twenty years. One woman accused Batali of repeatedly forcibly pulling her towards his body from behind. Another woman accused him of groping her and compelling her to straddle him by blocking her exit. Two of the women allege Batali grabbed or rubbed their breasts during a party.
The cost of litigating and settling sex harassment cases can be substantial for restaurants, as victims of harassment may be entitled to back pay, mental anguish damages, and punitive damages. Texas Roadhouse ponied up $1.4 million to settle a sex harassment and retaliation lawsuit which alleged that a restaurant manager verbally and physically harassed female employees as young as 17 years old, including pressuring workers for sexual favors, making humiliating remarks, and retaliating against employees who stood up to the abuse. Similarly, Cheddar’s Casual Café paid $450,000 to settle a case alleging that the restaurant permitted a hostile work environment by permitting sexual conversations and jokes and by allowing a general manager and bar manager to subject several female employees to unwelcome touching and requests for sexual favors.
It is common knowledge that sexual misconduct has historically been tolerated in both the restaurant kitchens and dining rooms. A social environment, late nights, alcohol, and employees working collaboratively in cramped quarters present a workplace ripe for harassment. Moreover, many restaurants are run by owners/chefs, where there is no proper complaint procedure. Or where there is, workers are fearful of making a report to management, lest they risk losing their job or other forms of retaliation such as less lucrative shifts.
Anthony Bourdain recently noted that publicity about some of these harassment issues portent “the beginning of the end of institutionalized Meathead Culture in the restaurant business.” (October 21, 2017) Let’s hope he is right.