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Time’s Up on Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry

Sexual Harassment is a major problem in the restaurant industry. According to a recent study, as many as 90% of women and 70% of men working in the Restaurant industry have experienced some form of sexual harassment. In the U.S., more sexual harassment claims are filed in the restaurant industry than in any other. Harassment of service workers by managers, coworkers, and, even, customers is insidious and rampant. A new legal defense group, called TIME’S UP, has taken aim at this pervasive problem and is standing up to one of the world’s most recognizable restaurant brands – McDonald’s.

Formed by over 300 actresses, agents, writers, directors, producers and entertainment executives, The TIME’S UP legal defense fund is resolved to extend the muscle of the #MeToo movement and combat sexual harassment in Hollywood as well as in blue collar professions like janitorial services, nursing, farming, manufacturing, and hospitality, including the restaurant industry. TIME’S UP will support new legislation aimed at achieving gender equality; penalizing companies that don’t take action against harassment; and discouraging the use of nondisclosure agreements to silence victims of harassment.

This week, TIME’S UP announced the filing of 23 new complaints against McDonald’s. In the filings, workers accuse McDonald’s of gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment in the workplace, and retaliation for speaking up. Director of TIME’S UP, Sharyn Tejani said victims of sexual harassment are often in a position where they must “put up with the harassment,” or “lose the paycheck that’s keeping you in a house or keeping groceries on your table.”

Sexual harassment is particularly insidious in the restaurant industry for several reasons. First, management positions and higher paying roles in the industry are held primarily by men, while the typical frontline restaurant employees are young women. 71% of restaurant servers nationwide are women. This disparity creates an environment where sexual harassment is tolerated, ignored, or even normalized because employees don’t feel comfortable confronting others about inappropriate behavior. Second, the prevailing restaurant service mentality of, “the customer is always right” causes staff and management to refrain from complaining or reporting instances of sexual harassment from customers. When servers do report harassment, management tends to ignore them or change servers instead of confronting the customer. Astoundingly, managers tend to perceive the same sexually harassing behavior as less negative when perpetrated by a customer rather than by an employee. Restaurant employees in the U.S. rely on tips, and customers play an integral role in the pay of restaurant employees so employees and managers are less likely to speak out.  Third, in the restaurant industry, “looks” are regarded as important and a person is often expected to use their appearance as part of the service experience. Restaurants often have strict grooming and uniform rules, requiring employees to maintain certain “looks.” A culture that emphasizes and rewards looks can help customers and managers justify sexual harassment toward employees.

Among the 23 new complaints filed against McDonald’s, in one case, 16 year old Brittany Hoyos reported that she initially experienced managers brushing up against her in the narrow areas of the store and co-workers called her a “whore.” Like many in these situations, Brittany states that she felt “embarrassed” and as though she was “somehow at fault.”  This being her first job, she thought the harassment was something she would be forced to put up with.  Brittany’s family was relying on her income and she “didn’t want to be the person making noise.” After supervisors were notified of the harassment and Brittany insisted upon accountability, the verbal harassment continued, and she was singled out in retaliatory fashion. Eventually, she was fired, for minor infractions that she said other employees were not punished for. In another case filed by TIME’S UP, Jamelia Fairley said, a co-worker began groping her. When she reported the incidents, the man was moved to another store and Ms. Fairley’s hours were cut drastically, she felt targeted by co-workers for taking action and her requests for a transfer were ignored by management.

In the State of Maine, employees are entitled to a workplace free of discrimination and harassment. It is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of sex under both Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Maine Human Rights Act. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination under both laws and can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, crude jokes, condescending remarks and offensive or suggestive comments.  Employers are liable for sexual harassment when they unreasonably fail to prevent and correct it. Additionally, it is illegal to retaliate against an employee for reporting sexual harassment.  Retaliation can include threats, demotion, reduced pay, termination, or other adverse actions taken in response to the employee complaining about sexual harassment.

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