Have You Been the Victim of a Sexual Assault in the Restaurant Industry?
During my 30 years of practice as an employment law attorney, I have encountered many employees that have been victims of sexual assault and harassment in the restaurant industry. Most of these victims are females, but there has been an upward trend in males experiencing the same issues. Servers and bartenders, typically those employees who earn a considerable amount of the income from tips, seem to be the most susceptible to sexual assault and harassment. There has also been an uptick in younger entry-level employees (particularly teens working their first job) who are sexually assaulted by supervisors and managers who view their crew as an opportunity to gain sexual favors and satisfy their illicit desires. And it’s not just servers and bartenders who are subject to this illegal conduct. Workers of all types in the restaurant industry — hosts/hostesses, cooks/food preps, cashiers, dishwashers and other entry level workers — are also experiencing sexual assault and harassment in the workplace.
In some cases, restaurant employees are expected to endure lewd remarks about their bodies and unwelcome sexual propositions. Unfortunately, sexual assaults — including unwanted groping of the employee’s private parts and forced or coerced participation in sexual conduct — are a more severe form of sexual harassment that is particularly prevalent in restaurants.
Predatory restaurant managers and supervisors pretend to befriend young employees. They “like” the employee’s social media posts, exchange “friendly” texts, and make promises of pay raises, preferred shifts, and promotions. As time goes on, texts and conversations become more sexually suggestive. Employees are made to feel that they have encouraged a sexual relationship. They eventually believe that they have no choice but to participate in sex acts.
Even if the employee agrees to participate in sexual behavior, it is usually illegal in Florida for an adult to have sexual contact with a person who has not reached the age of 18. A manager’s sexual contact with a minor employee nearly always violates laws that prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace. When an employee of any age is told that consenting to sex is necessary to remain employed, to receive a raise, or to get a preferred shift, the employee is also the victim of unlawful sexual harassment.
Why Are Sexual Assaults Prevalent in the Restaurant Industry?
Sexual assaults of employees in restaurants are pervasive for several reasons. Employees tend to be young. They are often working in their first jobs. They aren’t equipped to deal with authority figures who groom them with compliments or bully them with demands for sexual favors.
Unscrupulous managers take advantage of young employees who often don’t realize that sexual touching and demands for sexual favors are not a normal part of employment. Managers know that employees do not view their jobs as careers and are therefore more likely to quit than to report workplace harassment. Also, restaurant owners don’t make a significant investment in training managers and supervisors who are likely to move to a better job after a few months.
Victims of sexual harassment often fear that complaining will result in retaliation. Those fears are legitimate. Fortunately, laws that prohibit sexual harassment also prohibit retaliation. Evidence in a class action lawsuit against McDonald’s in just one state — a lawsuit the company recently settled for $1.5 million dollars — suggested that its fast-food locations routinely fired employees who reported sexual harassment. Yet the courageous employees who stood up to McDonald’s in court were eventually vindicated.
In January of 2023, another McDonald’s franchisee was tagged for almost $2 million by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). According to the lawsuit, since at least 2017, the franchisee knew about sexual harassment and allowed it to continue, unabated, by supervisors, managers, and coworkers at various McDonald’s restaurants. The EEOC reported that the harassing conduct was mainly directed at young, teenage employees, which included frequent unwanted touching, offensive comments, unwelcome sexual advances, and intimidation. The EEOC charged the franchisee for failing to adequately address the complaints of sexual harassment, which caused many workers to find the working conditions so intolerable that they had no choice but to quit.
It’s not just McDonalds. There are many restaurant chains that have been the source of sexual assault and harassment claims. Hooters was sued by a 19 year-old server who was sexually harassed and assaulted by a co-worker in 2017. The victim reported the harassment that ultimately lead to an assault, which resulted in her getting fired. According to the allegations of the lawsuit, the managers dismissed her complaints and told her “don’t play with him and he come out here.” The victim’s manager’s response to her complaint was to leave a note for the manager on duty the next day. When the victim came to work the next day, the manager seemed unconcerned and was not willing to help her, so she walked out. Hooters fired her for voluntarily leaving her job. Hooters and the victim’s attorneys attended a settlement conference in March of 2019 and the case was resolved a month later.
How Does Sexual Harassment Affect Restaurant Employees?
Since restaurant (particularly fast-food) positions are usually entry-level jobs, they tend to be filled by young people who have little experience with the adult world. Being groped, propositioned, or coerced into participating in sexual conduct with a manager can have a lasting impact on a young person. Sexual assaults and unwanted sexual attention can lower the employee’s self-esteem and can cause depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and other negative psychological consequences.
The EEOC says it continues to see younger workers subjected to workplace harassment. The agency maintains that employers have the responsibility to create a safe workplace and understand that younger workers are more likely to be targeted due to their age.
Federal and Florida sexual harassment laws permit the recovery of damages for emotional distress, suffering, loss of dignity, the expense of counseling, and other harms that result from sexual harassment. Victims of sexual harassment who take action to vindicate their rights also gain the emotional satisfaction of knowing their actions may change a work environment and protect other employees from sexual assaults.
What Can I Do About Sexual Harassment?
When harassment is committed by co-workers, employers may be able to escape liability if they have established an anti-harassment policy and a procedure for reporting harassment. Harassed employees who do not take advantage of that procedure often have difficulty winning a case. That’s why it is important for harassed employees to report the harassment to a supervisor the first time — and every time — it occurs.
When “the boss” engages in the harassment, the employer might be liable even if the employee did not report it. If a person who has authority to fire, demote, or reduce the pay of an employee demands the employee’s tolerance of sexual harassment and threatens to take an action that will harm the employee’s pay if the employee does not acquiesce, the harassment victim may be entitled to a remedy even if the harassment wasn’t reported.
As a general rule, however, it is wise to follow a reporting procedure even if the business owner or the employee’s manager is subjecting her to harassment. It may also be wise to file a sexual harassment complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. When the harassment involves a sexual assault, it should be reported to the police immediately, while memories are still fresh.
It is unlawful to retaliate against employees for reporting sexual harassment to their manager, the business owner, the employer’s HR department, or a government agency. Employees who are fired or disciplined after reporting sexual harassment often have a strong argument that they were the victims of retaliation. Other actions, including changing a schedule to reduce an employee’s hours, may be retaliatory if they would discourage employees from reporting sexual harassment. Since retaliation is unlawful, employees should understand that they can pursue a remedy if their employer fires them or makes their job more difficult because they complained about sexual harassment.
An employment lawyer who has experience representing employees of fast-food restaurants in sexual harassment cases is in the best position to advise harassed employees about the steps they can take to protect their jobs and to obtain meaningful remedies for harassment and retaliation. If you have been victimized by workplace harassment, our firm is prepared to investigate the facts of your case and to advise you about the remedies you may have. Call me today for a free case evaluation.